Rod Laver (right) is congratulated by Harry Hopman after his victory over Tunisia’s  Nicola Pietrangeli in the Wimbledon semi-final of 1960.
Rod Laver (right) is congratulated by Harry Hopman after his victory over Tunisia’s Nicola Pietrangeli in the Wimbledon semi-final of 1960.

Inside story: How Laver became our greatest

Rod Laver is the only men's tennis player to twice win the Grand Slam - all four major titles in the same year.

He won a record 200 career titles and was one of the world's top players for two decades.

He speaks to Grantlee Kieza about life in country Queensland, how he travelled to interstate tournaments in a VW Beetle, and how a Courier-Mail journalist helped him make up his mind on switching from the amateurs to the pros.

 

Rod Laver at the Omni La Costa Resort near San Diego. Picture: Coleman-Rayner
Rod Laver at the Omni La Costa Resort near San Diego. Picture: Coleman-Rayner

 

Last year you were named by The Sunday Mail and The Courier-Mail as the greatest sports star Queensland has ever produced. Congratulations.

Thankyou. Really, I was just thrilled to make the list of the top 100. Queensland has produced so many great sports people over the years when you look at the golfers such as Greg Norman and athletes such as Cathy Freeman and all the football players. I feel very fortunate to be included among them.

 

Why do you think Queensland has produced so many great sports stars? We really have punched above our weight when it comes to producing champions.

You know I've racked my brains over that for many years trying to figure it out. I guess the healthy Queensland lifestyle has a lot to do with it. For me growing up in the country was a great help to a sporting career because where I grew up in Rockhampton all we wanted to do as kids was to play sport.

I came from an era when the Queensland country produced other top tennis players such as Roy Emerson and Mal Anderson at the same time and competition in country towns in those days was pretty damn healthy.

 

Queensland’s country heroes Roy Emerson (left) and Rod Laver.
Queensland’s country heroes Roy Emerson (left) and Rod Laver.

 

What are your earliest memories of playing tennis?

My dad had a 10,000-hectare cattle property just outside Marlborough (100km north west of Rockhampton) and he and mum were keen tennis players. They had a court wherever they lived. When I was about eight or nine my mum and dad moved to Rockhampton so their kids could get a better education and where we lived there was enough room for a court as well so I was playing on it as often as I could.

 

What sort of surface?

Oueen Elizabeth II presents the 1962 Wimbledon Trophy to Rod Laver.
Oueen Elizabeth II presents the 1962 Wimbledon Trophy to Rod Laver.

It was a homemade clay court. My dad, Roy Laver, had a truck, and together with my older brothers Bob and Trevor we would go down to the mouth of the Fitzroy River that flows right through Rockhampton and we would collect silt from there to make our court. I don't know how many truckloads we took home but we carted a lot of silt from the river bed - sand and loam - and we just laid it down at home and that was our tennis court. From the age of eight or nine, tennis took up most of my spare time.

 

So you were always playing?

I wanted to but I would have to get one of my brothers to come home from school earlier than the other so I could get a game. When they both came home together, it would be 'OK kid, off you go, we're playing singles'.

 

Your mum, Melba, and dad, Roy, were very much country people.

They met in a place called Dingo in Queensland. Dad was a drover and he lived off the land for many years but he wanted the best for his kids so he eventually came into town.

 

Rod Laver effortlessly strokes a backhand at Wimbledon in 1969.
Rod Laver effortlessly strokes a backhand at Wimbledon in 1969.

 

Who was the biggest influence on your success as a player?

I would have to say my coach Charlie Hollis. My parents and my older brothers gave me every chance to compete and a lot of encouragement but I would have to say that Charlie did more for me than anyone. I always followed his advice.

I always had a pretty good forehand and serve but I always had a little slice backhand, a chip backhand, too, that he worked on improving. He said "you're never going to win Wimbledon like that - you have to hit a top-spin backhand.''

So, I practised and practised it. I was hitting them into the cheap seats for quite some time.

 

The 1973 Davis Cup team of Neale Fraser, Rod Laver, John Newcombe and Ken Rosewall.]
The 1973 Davis Cup team of Neale Fraser, Rod Laver, John Newcombe and Ken Rosewall.]

 

You had no television when you started playing and living in Rockhampton, you would not have had the chance to see many great players in action. Who were your heroes growing up?

We listened to the radio and read the newspapers. I knew the names Frank Sedgman, Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall back when I was 10 or 11 and I followed their progress. When I came down from Rockhampton to Brisbane to play at Milton I saw all three of them in action in the early 50s, so I got to see some of the great players live.

The first big matches I saw were at Milton. Lew Hoad was my idol but in 1956 I saw the great Ashley Cooper beat Ken Rosewall in the semi-finals of the Queensland Championships at Milton and then beat Lew in the final which was a great effort. It was an amazing education for me to see all that, so many great players all playing in Brisbane in those days. Ashley was another player who I spent a lot of time with back then. He was a little younger than Lew and Ken and we played the same tournaments a lot.

 

Your mum and dad used to drive you around Queensland for tournaments when you were a kid. When it came to competing interstate, you used to hitch a ride in a beige VW Beetle belonging to another rising star, Trevor Fancutt.

Rod Laver (left) with Fred Stolle before the start if their game at Wimbledon in 1967. Picture: AP
Rod Laver (left) with Fred Stolle before the start if their game at Wimbledon in 1967. Picture: AP

I remember travelling in the Beetle with Trevor from Sydney to Adelaide to compete. Our luggage and racquets were on the roof. I had been a friend of Trevor's wife Daph Seeney since we were kids. In those days we had to economize on travel. I didn't have much in the way of air fares in those days, none of us had any money from playing tennis.

 

When it came to perhaps the biggest decision of your career you turned to this newspaper for advice?

In the early 60s tennis was still divided into amateurs and professionals. Pros were banned from all the big traditional tournaments. Australia was playing Mexico in the Davis Cup at Milton from December 26-28, 1962. By that stage I had won the Australian and Wimbledon singles titles twice and the US and French titles but I still wasn't making any money.

I was thinking of turning professional so I came into The Courier-Mail building to talk it over with your tennis writer Lawrie Kavanagh over a couple of beers. Lawrie was a good friend and I knew I could lay everything on the line to him in confidence. It was a big story but I asked Lawrie if we could talk off the record. I told him I loved playing the game "but I haven't made any money from this bloody world of tennis. I'm thinking I have to turn professional to make a living''.

 

We discussed my idea in detail and with Lawrie I weighed up all the plusses and minuses. Lawrie told me straight that I would have to forget about playing all the big tournaments that were only open to amateurs. He told me "You know, you're never going to see Wimbledon again''.

But staying amateur was plain crazy and I told Lawrie I had to turn pro. We were playing Mexico at Milton and while I loved playing for Australia I looked at the tournaments where we were selling 12,000 or 15,000 seats to people for a good amount of money and I didn't know where all the money was going because the players weren't seeing any of it. I felt that I had filled the coffers for tennis officials a few times over and there was only one decision I could make.

 

Rod Laver in 1961 with his mother and sister at Brisbane Airport.
Rod Laver in 1961 with his mother and sister at Brisbane Airport.

 

It must have been a huge thrill when after years of being banned from Wimbledon, you and the other professionals were welcomed back in the Open era.

It was a great moment. A fellow called Herman David was the chairman of the All England Club at the time and he wanted the best players competing at Wimbledon. We were playing a professionals-only tournament at Wembley in London and he came to tell us that nobody liked the present system of tennis, that it wasn't good for anybody.

Herman said "what we're going do in 1967 is have a pro-only Wimbledon. You guys find your best eight players and get ready to play there on grass a few weeks after the main Wimbledon tournament of 1967''.

He said "on the last three days of the pro tournament if you fill the stadium you're welcome to play in the main tournament in 1968''.

We all wanted to be welcomed back to Wimbledon and the other big events. And we did fill the stadium that year. We had Rosewall, Pancho Gonzalez, Lew Hoad, Andres Gimeno, Butch Buchholz, Fred Stolle, Dennis Ralston and me.

It was amazing event. I ended beating Rosewall in the final. It was a thrill to think we could come back to Wimbledon again because at the time Wimbledon was the only big tournament which didn't need us.

 

A baby-faced Rod Laver in action at Milton in 1957.
A baby-faced Rod Laver in action at Milton in 1957.

 

You ended up winning the Grand Slam - the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US titles all in the same year, not once, but twice. Of all your great wins which one really stands out?

I would have to say winning my first Australian title at Milton in 1960. I had lost the singles final at Wimbledon in 1959 to Alex Olemdo and in Brisbane Neale Fraser had me down two sets to love in the final of the Australian championship. But I kept plugging away, plugging away. I survived match point and I finally won in five sets. It was the first major title I won and it showed me that I could fight back and beat the very best in the game.

 

You've watched all the great players of world tennis for almost 70 years. Who is the best you ever saw?

Lew Hoad. To me he was the best player who ever held a racquet. He had every shot in the book and he could overpower anyone. He was so strong. He was my idol.

News Corp Australia

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