Otherwise, to describe Laver is to risk clich�. That is because writers seeing him for the first time do not believe him at all—a pale specimen, just 5'8", bowlegged as a cowhand and thin except for a left arm (the business arm) so overdeveloped it appears to have been grafted on, a transplant from a stevedore. Efforts to detail the legions of freckles marching across his body, and the ears that jut out and the nose that arcs a path before him have moved typewriters to paroxysms of description. Obviously he is not Pancho Gonzales.
Laver takes it all in good humor. He says a head transplant is a chancy solution. He says he is pleased that son Ricky does not have the Laver nose, but "I understand you don't get all that's coming to you until you're 14, so he's not safe yet." He says the sun doesn't help his freckles any, only enhances their presence, leaving him paler still behind them, and if he eats a lobster tail or a crustacean of any sort he blossoms into hives, more or less proving that when God meant a man to be plain He meant him to be plain. Laver admits, however, to being a trifle weary of comparisons with various small animals and flying things. He thought "prehistoric bird," for example, was a bit much.
There is, despite some metamorphosis, nothing rocketlike in Laver's personality. "Steady" would be a better word for that. He is still a shy man, the honest reflection of his parents. He bites and tears at his fingernails until they look like shreds of coconut. The cocktail hour is liable to find him in bed watching
. His speeches are marked mainly by the guts he shows in delivering them. At the Jordan Marsh department store in Miami, addressing a small crowd on the merits of his new Chemold racket, he dropped the racket. He seems completely at ease only in private or in his natural habitat—on the tennis court—and he will run to get there even if it is only to practice.
He celebrates with beer or a good wine. If it is Wimbledon, maybe champagne. The only time he orders a bucket of ice in a hotel room, says Mary, is when he has a sore elbow to pack, and at those times when there really was something to celebrate and he and Mary danced till dawn he admitted his dancing "was mostly faking it."
But expose yourself long enough to Rod Laver and a remarkable thing happens. He begins to look, well, better. Plain, he becomes almost handsome. Small, he appears to have grown. Character and strength, the major working parts of an attractive man, begin to stand out. Usually they stand out on the center court. At Forest Hills, say.
A friend, remembering Laver's victory there in 1969, the final leg of the Slam, said you could see it in the eyes. Sky-blue and softly lashed, they appear vulnerable to the smallest slight when he is off the court. On the court they narrow and grow hard, and the color drains. "He was playing Tony Roche in the finals," the friend recalls, "and we were all out together the night before, having a drink, relaxing, nothing special. John Newcombe had been quoted as saying, 'Laver would rather play anybody but Tony Roche,' probably because Roche was hot at the time and he is a lefthander, too, and Rod had had his troubles beating Roche. When the writer from
The New York Times
asked Laver about it, Rod said, 'When did Roche ever beat me when it was important?' I told Rod the statement was unlike him, and he said, 'Pretty cheeky, wasn't it?' He was almost apologetic. But he meant what he had said. You can't psych Laver.
"So the next day they were on the court at Forest Hills just before the finals and I caught Roche's eye. He smiled. Then I caught Laver's eye. Nothing. Instant shutout. Two steel beads looking out of an icebox. I remembered what Earl Buchholz told me. He said, 'Rod's a nice guy, all right, but he's no fun to play with.' Rod beat Roche in four sets. In less than two hours."
Laver says he has been getting a lot of good-sounding advice lately about how he should relax more. Not be so intense. Smile. He says he's been giving it a try. "It used to be I would never call to a bloke, 'Good shot.' Instead I would say to myself, 'I'm not going to give him the benefit of my saying it.' Now I find myself acknowledging good shots, and there's a little dialogue, and it is a good thing.
"But what is there to smile about? That's not what I do best. I like to play attractive tennis, not just bloop the ball over. I talk to myself a little bit and throw a racket occasionally, but I don't perform at the expense of winning. I never wanted to be the center of attraction, to be in the middle of anything. I think, as a breed, Australians are that way. Rosewall, Stolle, Emerson—they do not run around trying to make a show. Are you more popular if you're outspoken? Are you less popular if your color is the same through life, instead of red one minute and blue the next? Open your mouth too often and what you will probably reveal is your ignorance. I don't think of myself as shy because of that. Maybe I was shy as a youngster, but I don't think of myself as shy now. Quiet, maybe."
There is a phrase Australian tennis players use that has to do with caring. The phrase is "I'm all right, Jack," and it means not caring at all about others. As it is explained by Laver, "I'm all right, Jack" is what the guy who just drove off with the rental car shouts to the three guys left standing on the curb.