Don’t worry, said Picasso. She will.
Such applies to Rod Laver. By his early teens, he’d caught the eyes of Australian tennis’ majordomo, Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman. Though impressed by young Rod’s ball-striking skills, the last thing Hopman ever wanted to nurture in any tennis player was the spirit of complacency. Seeing that Laver wasn’t always moving to the ball with the greatest sense of urgency, Hopman dubbed him “Rocket.”
Reality caught up. The boy in time had soared as no one had, Laver becoming the only player in tennis history to win not just one, but two singles Grand Slams – a calendar year sweep of all four majors. It’s a feat that will keep him permanently among our sport’s A+ list of champions.
Now, on a muggy morning in Texas, the 78-year-old Laver cast his eyes on yet another tennis match, in this case a battle between two recreational players. This one pitted an airline pilot named Tom David versus Martin Wilde, a former professional hockey player.
Laver was watching the final day of competition at the 2016 edition of Tennis Fantasies with John Newcombe and the Legends – a week-long fantasy camp that’s been held for 29 straight years every October at Newcombe’s ranch in New Braunfels, Texas (30 miles from San Antonio). The spine of the event was a competition between four teams, each captained by several ex-pros. Laver’s team, named the Musclemen in honor of a former attendee, the great Ken Rosewall, was also captained by his fellow Hall of Famer, Owen Davidson; another Aussie, Ross Case and Murphy Jensen.
Tom was playing for the Musclemen. Martin was a member of the Mongrel Kangaroos, a team led by Newcombe, Hall of Famer Charlie Pasarell and Rick Leach. The two teams were going toe-to-toe in the finals – 18 singles matches in the morning, nine doubles in the afternoon.
Two nights earlier, Laver had told the tale of his incredible 1969 run – an Open era Grand Slam. He’d made a couple of comebacks from two sets to love down in the early stages of Roland Garros and Wimbledon. There followed a few scintillating matches versus such future Hall of Famers as Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Dennis Ralston, Roy Emerson and Tony Roche. The match with Roche, a semi at the Australian Open, had been played in oven-like conditions, Laver winning by the never-to-be-repeated score of 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3. Then came the finals, Laver taking on more eventual Hall of Famers: Andres Gimeno, Rosewall, Newcombe and at last closing it out versus Roche.
Amazing as that year had been, Laver described it as matter-of-factly as he would a walk across the street. “You try and bring your best tennis, find your good shots, work hard to get there,” said the man who at his apex never stood more than 5’ 8”. But he also stood tall. Photos from Laver’s career persistently reveal superb posture, balance, grace – all triggering that trademark flair that has inspired the likes of Roger Federer and Pete Sampras, as well as fellow lefties John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova.
Laver’s tale had held the 90+ campers and the 14 legends spellbound. But then, a day and a half later, there he was, humble, unassuming, engaged by David and Wilde. “It’s fun to watch people give their all to tennis,” he said. “I love this sport, love that I’ve been able to make a living from it and spend time with all my good mates.”
Were David to win, he would give his team a 10-8 lead going into the afternoon’s doubles matches. As the opposing captain, Pasarell noted, “It makes a world of difference to be even rather than two matches behind. It puts much less pressure on our team.”
This was only the second time Laver had been at Tennis Fantasies. “I’d heard about the event from the guys forever, so it was great to last be able to attend and be part of it all,” he said. When he wasn’t coaching, Laver would give clinics alongside Emerson and chat at length with the campers over beers, meals and just about every free minute possible.
Even Laver’s fellow legends were awestruck by his presence. From Aussies Newcombe, Emerson, Davidson, Case, Fred Stolle and Mark Woodforde, to Americans Pasarell, Leach, Marty Riessen, Dick Stockton, Brian Gottfried and the Jensen brothers, each could recount dozens of tales of Laver, of matches they’d heard about, seen or, most vividly of all, played against him. Stockton and Pasarell had each lost matches to Laver that were decided in tiebreakers. “I played my best,” said Pasarell of an epic he’d lost 13-11, “but he played even better. I was Charlie Pasarell. He was Rod Laver.”
“Rod would sometimes start slow,” said Newcombe, “but then something would happen. He’d hit an amazing shot and that would trigger everything.” Laver’s game at its best was a cascading flurry, his left arm helping him strike brazen winners off both sides – sharp crosscourt forehands, dart-like backhands, crisply angled volleys, agile overheads and, per Hopman’s admonition, superb movement. Minutes after watching another fantasy camper play, Laver made a simple but telling comment, “You’ve got to be able to have all those shots. You’ve got to practice them too, so you’re ready and comfortable to use them when you need them.”
As often happens at Tennis Fantasies, the match between Wilde and David would be decided by a Super TieBreaker. Laver watched closely. It had been more than 70 years since he’d first picked up a racquet, more than 60 since he’d first met Hopman, more than 50 since he’d won his first calendar Slam. On every continent, from clay to cow dung, carpet to grass, Laver had seen everything. Now it was David versus Wilde in a decisive tiebreaker. Laver played plenty of those too — versus Pasarell in Bologna ’71, Stockton in Hartford ’75, Rosewall in Dallas ’72 (perhaps the toughest loss of Laver’s career). Back and forth went David and Wilde. Laver saw it all unfold. David approached and knifed a volley winner. Wilde cracked a down the line forehand. Wilde took a 9-6 lead – three match points. But David took the next four – only to see Wilde snap up three straight points and close out the match.
Such is the democracy of Tennis Fantasies. There are the tales of the legends, of matches won and lost on the biggest stages of them all. Then there are the campers who come, hoping for an encounter, a hit, and perhaps, just perhaps, their own rocket-like competitive moment.
Laver had lived up to Hopman’s nickname. But always, the Rocket remained exquisitely grounded, bound to his mates and the code of conduct and competition that makes the Aussies inspirationally inclusive and attuned. Following the David-Wilde match, Laver asked, “What can you say? There really are no guarantees in life. Bad luck for Tom, well done for Martin. There’s always next time.”
Photo credits: Ken Munson
The 30th edition of Tennis Fantasies takes place October 15-20, 2017. For more information, contact Steve Contardi at 1-800-874-7788.