But most important, perhaps, is Laver's continuing enthusiasm for the game—despite the fact that this is his 13th year on a world circuit of one sort or another. He seems shocked at the suggestion that he might spend a lot of time doing calisthenics, roadwork and other exercises instead of practicing. "I'd rather hit for three or four hours a day," he said. "That's my practice. I love playing tennis, and I'm very fortunate to be able to make my living doing something I like. Practice has never been a chore for me."
Away from a tennis court, however, the ingrained nervous viciousness that distinguishes him so in action dissipates rapidly, and Laver becomes more like something out of a Boy Scout manual—shy, modest, honest, clean, thrifty, neat, kind, etc.—the very composite of the all-Australian boy.
Which indeed he was. His father Roy, now 70, was the 13th child of a Victoria farmer who moved to Queensland seeking more land for his brood, and when Rod was born, on August 9, 1938, Roy and his family were working a 23,000-acre cattle property called Langdale, about 90 miles from Rockhampton, in northeast Australia. Eleven years later the Lavers moved to Rockhampton itself, a town that is just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Roy, as he had done at Langdale, built a tennis court in his backyard, using the sandy loam that is produced by the flooding of the silt-laden Fitzroy River.
All the Lavers played tennis, when they weren't fishing or playing a brand of homemade cricket, but Rod, being the youngest of three brothers, often had to wait his turn for the court. Says Roy Laver: "Funny thing, I always used to say we would send somebody in the family to Wimbledon one day. It was sort of a family joke, but I meant it. But I never for a moment thought it would be Rod. His oldest brother Trevor was the one who really was good in those days."
In Rockhampton, Laver came under the tutelage of a former player named Charlie Hollis, and Hollis, more than anyone else, molded Laver's basic game, especially the top-spin ground strokes that have become so characteristic. A member of the family remembers, "Two hundred times a training session you'd hear Hollis yelling at Rod, 'Get under the ball and hit over it—under and over, under and over.' "
Rod recalls, "When I was starting out I hit flatter, my backhand especially, but Charlie said, 'If you're going to be a great player, you've got to hit over the ball.' It's hard to do. The strain on the wrist and forearm is tremendous. I would end a practice session and everything would just ache, but the next day the pain would be gone and I would feel stronger."
Short and frail, Rod also suffered a bout of hepatitis as a boy so that it took foresight to even imagine that he would grow to 5'8�" and fill out to a lean 150 pounds, and he was almost 18 in 1956 before at last he was acknowledged as having superior potential. Although only the fifth-ranked junior in Australia, he was selected along with Bob Mark, the No. 1 junior, to make a private world tour. Young Laver reached the junior finals at Wimbledon, losing to Ron Holmberg, but a month later he won the U.S. junior title by beating Chris (whatever happened to?) Crawford. He was on his way.
"I could always feel myself getting better," Rod says. "Not gradually, but two or three times, almost overnight, my game would rise—take a tremendous jump when everything I was working on suddenly came together—then level off again, then take another big jump."
Laver was 21 in 1960 when he won his first major title, the Australian, and the following year he took his first Wimbledon. In 1962 he became, of course, the only player in history besides Budge to win the four major world singles titles. He came home to help Australia defend the Davis Cup for the umpteenth time, and then turned professional.
The pros then were still run by Jack Kramer, still played one-night stands like a traveling circus and desperately needed a new act. The last outstanding amateurs to switch had been Rosewall and Hoad in 1956 and 1957, and while the amateurs were not exactly turning on the tennis public, the pros were threatening to die on the vine. "If he hadn't joined us," said Hoad, "we might just as well have called it quits."