Rod Laver was so scrawny and sickly as a child in the Australian bush that no one could guess he would become a left-handed whirlwind who would conquer the tennis world and be known as possibly the greatest player ever. A little more than a month before Don Budge completed the first Grand Slam, Rodney George "Rocket" Laver was born Aug. 9, 1938, at Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia. Despite lack of size and early infirmities, Laver grew strong and tough on his father's cattle property and emulated Budge by making the second male Grand Slam in 1962 as an amateur - then became the only double Grand Slammer seven years later by taking the major singles (Australian, French, Wimbledon, U.S.) as a pro.
Few champions have been as devastating and dominant as Laver was as amateur and pro during the 1960s. An incessant attacker, he was nevertheless a complete player who glowed in the backcourt and at the net. Laver's 5-foot-8-1/2, 145-pound body seemed to dangle from a massive left arm that belonged to a gorilla, an arm with which he bludgeoned the ball and was able to impart ferocious topspin. Although others had used top-spin, Laver may have inspired a wave of heavy-hitting topspin practitioners of the 1970s such as Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas. The stroke became basic after Laver. As a teenager he was sarcastically nicknamed "Rocket" by Australian Davis Cup Capt. Harry Hopman. "He was anything but a Rocket," Hopman recalled. "But Rod was willing to work harder than the rest, and it was soon apparent to me that he had more talent than any other of our fine Australian players."
His initial international triumph came during his first trip abroad in 1956, when he won the U.S. Junior Championship at 17. Four years later he was ready to take his place among the world's best when he won the Australian singles, snapping back to beat another lefty, Neale Fraser and, with Bob Mark, the doubles for a second time. He was runner-up to Alex Olmedo for the Wimbledon championship, that would presently be his four times. The Australian victories were the first of Laver's 20 major titles in singles, doubles and mixed, placing him fifth among all-time male winners behind Roy Emerson (28), John Newcombe (25), Frank Sedgman (22) and Bill Tilden (21). Jean Borotra also won 20. His 11 singles (equaled by Bjorn Borg) were second to Emerson's long-standing record of 12, later eclipsed by Pete Sampras' 14 and Roger Federer's 15.
The losing Wimbledon finals of 1959-60 were but a prelude to an incredible run of success in that tournament. He was a finalist six straight times he entered, winning in 1961 over Chuck McKinley and 1962, over Marty Mulligan. After a five-year absence as an outcast professional, he returned to the fanfare of opens to win again in 1968, over Tony Roche, and in 1969, over Newcombe. While winning Wimbledon in four straight appearances (the only man since World War I to win four prior to Borg) and proceeding to the fourth round in 1970, Laver set a male tournament record of 31 consecutive match wins, ended by his loss to Roger Taylor (passed in 1980 by Borg, who lengthened the record to 41).
The year 1969 was Laver's finest, perhaps the best experienced by any player, as he won an open-era record 17 singles tournaments (tied by Guillermo Vilas in 1977) of 32 played on a 106-16 match record. In 1962 he won 19 of 34 on 134-15. Unlike his Grand Slam year of 1962 as an amateur, he was playing in tournaments that were open to all, amateur and pro, and this Slam was all the more impressive. After his second year running as the No. 1 amateur, 1962, and helping Australia win a fourth successive Davis Cup, Laver turned pro, his appearance saving the sagging professional game, a stimulus to keeping it breathing until opens arrived in 1968. It was a life of one-nighters, but Pancho Gonzalez was no longer supreme.
Kenny Rosewall was at the top and gave Laver numerous beatings as their long, illustrious rivalry began. Rosewall beat Laver to win the U.S. Pro singles in 1963, but the next year Laver defeated Rosewall, then eight-time champ Gonzalez, to win the first of his five crowns, four of them in a row beginning in 1966. He had a streak of 19 wins in the U.S. Pro until losing the 1970 final to Roche. When open tennis dawned in 1968, Laver was ready to resume where he'd left off at the traditional tournaments, whipping Roche in less than an hour to take the first open Wimbledon. In 1971 Laver won $292,717 in tournament prize money (a season record that stood until Arthur Ashe won $338,337 in 1975), enabling him to become the first tennis pLaver to make a million dollars on the court. Until the last days of 1978, when he was playing few tournaments, Laver was still the all-time leading money-winner with $1,564,213. Jimmy Connors then surpassed him, along with numerous others.
In 1973 all professionals were at last permitted to play Davis Cup, and Laver, 35, honed himself for one last effort, after 11 years away. He was brilliant, teaming with Newcombe to end a five-year U.S. reign, 5-0. Laver beat Tom Gorman in five sets on the first day and paired with Newcombe for a crushing doubles victory over Stan Smith and Erik van Dillen that clinched the Cup, Laver's fifth. Of all the marvelous Aussie Davis Cup performers he was the only one never to play in a losing series, 11 of them, compiling 16-4 and 4-0 marks in singles and doubles. He was also a factor in winning three World Cups (1972, '74-'75) for Australia in the since disbanded team competition against the U.S.
In 1976, as his tournament career was winding down, Laver signed with San Diego in World Team Tennis and was named the league's Rookie of the Year at age 38.
During a 23-year career that spanned the amateur and open eras, he won 47 pro titles in singles and was runner-up 21 times. Overall, amateur and pro, he was the all-time leader with 184 singles titles, and was elevated to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1981, and the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame in 1993. In 2001 the principal stadium of Melbourne Park, scene of the Australian Open, was named Rod Laver Arena. Despite spending five of his prime years in the unranked wilderness of the pros, he was among the World Top Ten 12 times, 1959-1962, and 1968-75 (the last at age 37). He was No.2 four times, 1961, '62, '68, '69.
Suffering a massive stroke that might have killed him in 1998, he rehabilitated with the same drive that made him a champion, and today continues normally, playing tennis and golf with friends.
Rod was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in1981.