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May 10, 2016 01:34 PM

RodLaverBookJacketToby Smith gives a thumb’s up to Rod Laver’s life story

Some things I learned from reading the recently published Rod Laver: An Autobiography.

•His celebrated left forearm measured 13 inches in circumference.
•He started playing tennis on an anthill behind the family farm in Australia.
•He became tennis’s first millionaire in 1972.
•He married a woman ten years older than him.
•He once gave a tennis exhibition at Chino State Prison in California.
•He chewed his fingernails to the nub.
•He hunted kangaroos as a boy.
•He loved westerns movies and saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 20 times.

I became aware of Rod Laver in 1960, by reading about him World Tennis magazine. Because tennis was not then seen nor heard on American television, I assumed that his last name was pronounced LAV-er.  

I saw him play in person at Forest Hills, in 1961. A quiet but talented amateur, he reached the men’s singles final. The following year he won his first Grand Slam, capturing all four majors. As a journalist covering Forest Hills in the early 1970s, I marveled at his shot-making.

By then Laver had won his second Grand Slam, which came in 1969, during the second year of Open tennis. No one has come close to duplicating that feat.  Those titles were accomplished with a Dunlop Maxply Fort, a wooden racket with a tiny head and the flexibility of a brick.

I watched him on television in 1975 when CBS-TV broadcast his Caesar’s Palace challenge match with Jimmy Connors. Connors, who was 14 years younger than Laver, then stood atop the tennis world. Even so, he needed four tough sets to defeats the man many call “Rocket.”   

When Laver’s autobiography appeared this spring, two books about him were already on Amazon.com. A third book, a self-published biography by an Australian friend had also been done.  Was a fourth Laver book necessary?  Absolutely.

Laver is not a forgotten figure among those who follow tennis. But because of his calm demeanor, his great humbleness, his domination of tennis in the 1960s, as both an amateur and then as a professional, there was clearly much more to tell. And he has done so in this fine remembrance.  

RodLaverAt five-foot eight inches, and a buck 48 pounds, Laver was hardly a physical specimen, save for that Popeye-like left forearm. Nor was he Hollywood handsome. Freckle-faced, hook-nosed and bowlegged, he possessed enormous self-determination to be the very best.  Any youngster who wants to do well in tennis can learn from what Laver did to get where he did.

For example, that muscular left forearm that helped him crack winners from both sides, came from squeezing a squash ball over and over. He was a fiend for fitness, particularly double knee jumps.  Whenever he practiced, he played every shot just as hard as he could.  He raced after every ball in such sessions, even the no-chance kind, and did not let a ball bounce more than once.  He worked to develop three different kinds of serves, none of them a cannonball.

In the past decade, Connors, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi have produced autobiographies.  The volumes by Connors and Sampras are mostly run-downs on sets played with so and so, during so and so event. Neither offered much insight into their personal lives. Agassi’s book was very good, helped in part by J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

Laver’s look back, published by Triumph Books, is also scattered with results of sets at lots of tournaments. There are, however, numerous vivid memories, and they lift the 388 pages. There are memories of the extraordinary army of Aussie players at mid-century and on  Of the gypsy years of pro tennis, starting in 1963, when he competed in bull rings and on ice rinks at such remote spots as La Paz and Khartoum and Utica, New York.  Of the volatile yet gifted Pancho Gonzales. Of the talented yet clownish Ilie Nastase. Of beers drank and grips replaced.

There is a good amount in Laver’s memoir about the American woman Laver wed, Mary Benson, a wise and pretty soul who already had three children. His time with Mary lasted 46 wonderful years until her death in November 2012, hastened by a number of health issues. Mary died in the couple’s Carlsbad, Calif., home. Rocket lay by her side as she took her last breath.   

Now 77, Laver has struggled with medical problems of his own. He endured a serious stroke in 1999, assisted to recovery by Mary. The jarring his body took on tennis courts  over a long spell led to two hip replacements, knee and elbow troubles and a fair amount of arthritis. That famous bulging left forearm is now normal in appearance. Like a lot of tough blokes from Down Under, complaining was never in Laver’s DNA.   

“I’ve had a fantastic life,” he writes.  
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