Laver signed for $ 110,000 to be guaranteed over 30 months. His debut in White City Stadium in Sydney was against Hoad, then 28 years old and at the peak of his game. Laver started well and won the first set at 8-6, but Hoad, playing with professional polish, ran out the match, 6-4, 6-3, 8-6. The match finished around midnight. Laver had to go right back on the court the next afternoon against Rosewall, the world's No. 1 professional. Rosewall won with dispatch, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. The entire month was a disaster. Playing Hoad one night, Rosewall the next, Laver lost all eight of his matches to Hoad and lost 11 of 13 to Rosewall. Losing so consistently was not altogether unexpected, just continually demoralizing.
"I knew I was playing badly," Laver says. "I don't know what it was. After 1962 and the Slam and everything, I guess I felt there was nothing else left. I played five tournaments in December before the Challenge Round and won just one, and I shouldn't have won that. Newcombe and Roche beat me, and they were just kids. In the amateurs, especially my last two years, there just weren't that many good players around, and I could build up slowly to the last two or three rounds of a tournament and everything would be O.K. But that Australian tour—it was like playing a final every day.
"And I had to think more in the pros—like where a volley was going, instead of just hitting into an open court. For awhile it made me think about whether I had done the right thing. Deep down I knew I had, but sometimes I still couldn't help wondering."
In the years that followed, as Laver rose to challenge and at last supplant Rosewall, professional tennis itself foundered, as usual, on the waves of mediocre promotions in the face of a spectacularly disinterested public. Had not open tennis at last been approved this year, Laver might have, like Rosewall before him, reached greatness in obscurity. Laver, fortunately, is peaking at the exact time when open play is bringing a demonstrable resurgence and vitality to the sport.
Laver and his American family—in 1966 he married the former Mary Bensen, who has two children, Steven, 18, and Ann Marie, 17, by a former marriage—live now in Newport Beach, Calif., but either there or back home in Australia the game's new prosperity assures the Lavers a comfortable life.
Last year he signed a five-year $500,000 contract with the touring group headed by George MacCall. He has a host of solid investments—including a $1 million resort hotel he is building with Rosewall, Fred Stolle and Roy Emerson in Brisbane. He endorses his own tennis shoe and shirt, and he has promises of more offers. The possibilities for tennis are suddenly tremendous.
"I've always had a goal," Laver says, "not consciously, but in the back of my mind. The first was to make the Australian team, then to play, and win, at Wimbledon, then to win the Slam."
He could very well now become the first professional to win the Slam. Laver smiled. "You've got to be lucky. You've got to be healthy at the right time, not have a bad wrist or a sprained ankle or something like that. Let's say I'd be satisfied just to be able to play in the four tournaments next year. I wouldn't even hope for more than that."
With at least three good years still left, the chances are, however, that Laver may safely hope for much more. "He doesn't have a weakness, and I really wouldn't have any idea as to how somebody would set about beating him," Lance Tingay says frankly.
"If he goes on like this," Ren� Lacoste adds, " Rod Laver may really become the No. 1 of all time."