In a rather pleasing coincidence, Rod Laver was born on August 9—one day after Roger Federer’s birthday. Add to this that another tennis great, Pete Sampras, was born on August 12.
Laver, of course, is the elder of this titanic trio, the man the other two have long revered for everything from his game to his grace. As much as Federer, Sampras and the entire world wish to honor Laver turning 82, he himself this year has commenced another celebration. True to the collaborative spirit of Laver’s homeland, this one’s a team effort.
Late 2019 marked the publication of a new book authored by Laver. His story is only a small part of it. Laver’s tale is called “The Golden Era: The Extraordinary Two Decades When Australians Ruled the Tennis World.” Written with the assistance of Australian journalist Larry Writer (yes, that’s really his name), the book is an in-depth chronicle of 1950-’75, the years when Australian tennis ruled the world.
“This was our story, our nation’s story,” Laver told me, “and I wanted to tell it all. These people are all my friends and many of them have been my rivals. It was fun to dig into all this incredible history and bring it to life once again.”
As a few cases in point, during this remarkable quarter-century, Australia won the Davis Cup 16 times and took home 29 Wimbledon and US men’s singles titles. Add to the tally such feats as Laver’s two calendar Slams in ’62 and ‘69, Margaret Court’s all-time mark of 64 majors (including a singles sweep in ’70) and a men’s record 28 majors won by Roy Emerson.
Yet raw numbers only partially define the Australian tennis legacy. “We worked very hard to be fit and to represent our country wherever we played,” said Laver. “There we were, coming from this small nation, so we wanted to make a strong impression wherever we went. There was a pride we brought to all of it.”
No question, that mission was accomplished. “I can see any one of them now, say down 30-40 after a hard-lost point,” wrote Arthur Ashe in his book, “Portrait in Motion.” “One deep breath and right back at you... It is a matter of pride never to let you know they can be tired."
Far beyond serves and volleys, what the Australians did during this period was articulate (with minimal words) and showcase (with maximum action) what tennis was really about: first-rate sportsmanship. As articulated frequently by Emerson, the Aussie motto is simple: If you’re hurt, don’t play. But if you play, the assumption is you are ready to go and there will be no excuses. Regarding those who whine frequently, the Aussies would say, “I have never played him when he was well."
Over the course of 529 fast-paced pages, Laver provides in-depth looks at the various players who made Australia tennis’ super-power—their playing styles and personalities, in action on the broad tableau of high stakes events and major venues. Here, a quote from Hall of Famer Fred Stolle on his country’s two greatest players: “If the Rocket is hitting his shots, there’s no chance for me... but there’s always the chance that he’ll be a bit off and then you’re right in the match. Rosewall was never off. The pressure was on you every second because you knew that when you hit a bad shot he would make you pay without fail.”
Through it all, the Aussies maintained their sense of balance and perspective. “Newk and I joked around in the locker room before the match,” Laver writes of their ’69 Wimbledon final. “Then came the knock on the door to tell us that our presence was required on centre court. Some players at Wimbledon have likened that knock to the rap on the cell bars of a condemned prisoner before he is led by the warden and priest to execution. Not Newk and me, we were Wimbledon veterans and revelled in playing a Wimbledon final, an opportunity given to few.”
A major reason for Australia’s success in that period was that tennis was a sport for the masses. Writes Laver, “More people played tennis in Australia in the decades after World War II than cricket or the football codes. It was a bloody game and anyone—female, male, old, young—could take a swing.” Laver was among the many who came up playing on a family farm, squeaking his way into a communal court where players of all shapes and sizes played. It’s a vivid contrast to the precious, singular American tennis culture, where in many cases, the family tennis prodigy is fiercely cocooned.
But there remained deep loyalty. In those glory years, if you asked an Australian how to play an Aussie, he would tell you nothing. “We had to look out for each other,” said Laver. “We left home in March and didn’t go back until our October. So this we knew: No one of us gets there alone.” Such an attitude guarantees a large birthday party. Blow out the candles, Rocket. But with 82 on this year’s cake, no worries if you ask your mates for a little help.