Rod Laver was an inspiration to countless players, including John McEnroe. (Getty Images)
For our sixth annual Heroes Issue, we’ve selected passages from the last 50 years of Tennis Magazine and TENNIS.com—starting in 1969 and ending in 2018—to highlight 50 worthy heroes. Each passage acknowledges the person as they were then; each subsequent story catches up with the person, or highlights their impact, as they are now. It is best summed up with a quote from the great Arthur Ashe, that was featured on the cover of the November/December issue of this magazine in 2015: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
Now, since Forest Hills, I have achieved consecutive wins in the Pacific Southwest and Vancouver championships—winning both with my Chemold Aluminum Racquet. So, that’s my story. Chemold will be my racquet all the way—as it is with my good friends Margaret Court, Tony Roche, Roy Emerson and Owen Davidson. Many thanks for your interest and your support. - Rod Laver, Chemold Advertisement / December 1970 issue
He’s as unlikely an icon as you could dream up in a sport that prides itself on producing great athletes who also have matinee idol-grade charisma. Rod Laver was frequently described as “scrawny,” his aloof personality adding to his unprepossessing image.
But then there was his left arm, the business appenage for the southpaw player. It looked more like a lobster claw grafted onto the Aussie, and it played an enormous role in bringing tennis out of the dark ages of amateur-only play, and into the vibrant game we celebrate today.
One of the major drivers of the tennis boom that followed the advent of Open tennis was the generation of spectacularly gifted and often personally appealing Aussies. Fans loved that the Aussies were disciplined, tight-lipped and extremely competitive; yet imbued with a strong sense of camaraderie, fair play and—after the last serve was hit—a thirst for good times. The Aussies seemed to have an unwritten but powerful, sportsmanlike code. To many, they were a refreshing antidote to the dissolute spirit and mores of the 1960s.
Yet it’s unlikely Laver would have achieved his current status were it not for the labors of the man who emerged to threaten him as the greatest player ever, Roger Federer. Federer idolized Laver the way a precocious biology student might idolize Charles Darwin. He recognized that the self-effacing, proud Aussie was, more than a brilliant shotmaker, an exemplary sportsman and role model. Others paid lip service to Laver’s legacy, but few before Federer suggested that he’s the ultimate icon for reasons including but not limited to his record.
“Thanks for showing us class,” an emotional Federer told Laver himself at the 2017 Laver Cup, a team competition which pays tribute to The Rocket and his fellow tennis greats.
In a world where champions of the past often like to compare themselves favorably with their successors, or defer to others when it comes to drawing such parallels, this is what Gentleman Rod Laver said after watching Federer win his record 20th Grand Slam title at the 2018 Australian Open: “For me, I think Roger Federer is certainly the greatest player that has come along.”
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