Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
2. Rod Laver
Years played: 1956–1977
Titles: 52 (per ATP website)
Major titles: 11
“Rocket” would seem to be an appropriately complimentary nickname for an athlete who was as explosive as Laver. But the handle was originally given in jest, by Laver’s most famous coach, Harry Hopman. Personal appearance was important to Hopman, and young Rodney, by his own reckoning, was somewhat lacking in that department—“I was short and skinny, freckle-faced, crooked-nosed, bow-legged, and painfully shy to boot,” Laver said of his 13-year-old self. It also didn’t help that he was one of the slowest kids in his class. “He was the Rocket,” Hopman said, “because he wasn’t.”
But Laver had at least two things that Hopman liked. He had a wide array of shots—“all of those whippy sorts of things,” as Laver’s friend Roy Emerson put it—and he was willing to work harder than anyone else. With Hopman, that was saying something. “He trained us to run through a desert,” Laver said.
While he would only reach 5’8”, Laver’s strength and speed increased enough to let him make most of those whippy strokes. His thick left forearm and wrist, which he developed by squeezing tennis balls, helped him hit with power and accuracy even when on the run. “He is good,” Hopman finally admitted. Good enough, at 18, for Hopman to grant him one of Australia’s highest sporting honors at the time, a spot on the Davis Cup team.
Stories of the Open Era: Rod Laver
Laver had the physical tools to launch his rockets; now he needed to land them more often. Early on, he was prone to erratic, overambitious play and “rushes of blood” that could lead him from a string of winners to a string of errors. But Laver soon discovered something more important about himself. “It helped my cause,” he said, “that it was not in my makeup to succumb to nerves or pressure.”
That steadiness under pressure was on display in his breakthrough victory at the 1960 Australian Championships, when he came back from two sets down and saved a match point to beat his countryman Neale Fraser 8-6 in the fifth set. The next year, Laver won Wimbledon for the first time, and in 1962 he dominated the amateur game, becoming the first man since Don Budge in 1938 to win the calendar-year Grand Slam. It was time for the 24-year-old to leave the amateur game, and join the world’s best players on the pro tour.
By then, Laver had begun to master his varied repertoire of shots. His lefty serve was strong and swinging. His forehand and one-handed backhand were hit with biting topspin. He used his springy quickness to attack the net, defend the baseline, and cover virtually any lob. As for his own lob, he had both the topspin and slice versions in his arsenal. Laver could adjust his game on the fly and turn seemingly lost causes into five-set victories.
It’s one of the tragedies of tennis history that Laver spent his mid-20s prime far from the sport’s major events, and the cameras. From 1963 through ’67, he was relegated to the wilderness of professional tennis, with its two-man tours and shoestring tournaments. While the world wasn’t watching, Laver grew into the world’s best player; by 1966, he was the cream of a pro crop that included Ken Rosewall, Pancho Gonzalez and Lew Hoad. That year Laver won 15 tournaments; in ’67 he won 19, including the pro version of the Grand Slam. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that, if he had been allowed to the play the majors for those five years, Laver’s Slam count would be 20, rather than just 11, and he would have finished seven or eight seasons at No. 1.
Fortunately, the Open era arrived in time for the Rocket to soar in front of the world at least once. In 1969, at age 31, Laver made it his goal to win his second calendar-year Grand Slam. He began with an epic five-set win over Tony Roche in the Australian Open semis; he beat Rosewall and Newcombe in the French Open and Wimbledon finals, respectively; and he closed with another win over Roche in the US Open final.
Laver had won in high Australian heat, on red clay and slick grass, and in the rain-soaked earth in New York. When the second Slam was complete at Forest Hills, USLTA president Alastair Martin spoke for tennis fans everywhere: “You’re the greatest in the world,” he said of Laver, “perhaps the greatest we’ve ever seen.” Five decades later, it’s still hard to argue.
Defining Moment: The last time Laver had tried to jump the net after a win, it had been 1957, and he had tripped on the tape and fallen flat on his face. Now, 12 years later, having just completed his second career Grand Slam at Forest Hills, there was no stopping him. A few seconds after he clinched the 1969 US Open final against Roche, Laver found himself in mid-air. The Rocket flew across the net—safely this time—and into history. No man has followed him there yet.
Desert Smash: A Celebration of Celebrity, Charity and Tennis Unlike Any Other
The 14th annual Desert Smash charity tennis event is Tuesday, March 6, and there are many reasons to mark your calendar. Here are just five of those reasons, including the event's host, Serena Williams.
Desert Smash is the kick off to Indian Wells, which will be broadcast on Tennis Channel over the next two weeks.
*** STREAM DESERT SMASH LIVE on TENNIS.com ***
*** WATCH LIVE on TENNIS CHANNEL ***
*** PURCHASE TICKETS AT https://desertsmash.