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.)
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