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John Underwood
May 31, 1971
With his arsenal of high-powered shots, Rodney (Rocket) Laver is outasight—up, up and away ahead of anyone else who has ever played the game of tennis
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May 31, 1971

Rocket Heard Round The World

With his arsenal of high-powered shots, Rodney (Rocket) Laver is outasight—up, up and away ahead of anyone else who has ever played the game of tennis

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It is not likely that Laver has ever been called Jack, or sucker. Neither is he considered a practicing gamesman—he does not tie his shoelaces when the other guy is ready to serve or call time to change socks when he's tired. He has a reputation, rather, for being a sporting man who wouldn't know an alibi from an alligator. Andres Gimeno, the stylish Spanish tour veteran, remembers a time in Uganda when he had experienced a startling success against Laver. "I was beating him badly, and I began thinking to myself, 'My, you are playing well.' It is not until we get to the dressing room I see he has a very bad toe. I say, 'You should have told me, Rocket. You should have said, 'Don't make me look bad. I am injured.' Rocket replied, 'I thought I could beat you anyway.' "

Not everybody swoons at the drop of Rod Laver's name, of course. In Australia there are those who resent his success and declare he has become money hungry (Australians like to kick a guy when he's up) and tennis officials there knock him openly for not coming back more often to participate in Australian events, as valueless as most of them are to professional players. They say he owes it to the country. Laver says he paid back that debt with four Davis Cup championships. "When does a man get level?" he asks.

Occasionally, too, a linesman feels the lash of Laver's tongue—e.g., "If you're not going to pay attention, why are you sitting there?"—even though he is a devout non-complainer who believes it bad philosophy to challenge linesmen. Reporters who have failed to break his reserve liken him to a brick: "Take a brick and a saucer. Squeeze the brick over the saucer. See all that water in the saucer? That's what you get out of Rod Laver."

There are times when Laver's courtly manners crumble in the face of a dumb or routine question. At Aventura, after he had lost to Drysdale, a tall, thin young reporter who had apparently learned his tennis in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium asked such a question and Laver, alone at his locker, referred him to a knot of reporters surrounding Drysdale. "Don't you want to talk with him first, like the others?" Laver said. "I'm with an afternoon paper," said the young man, "and my questions won't be the ones they'll ask." Laver said, "I guarantee you that question you just put to me will be asked," and turned away.

Though a nonmixer, Laver gets along well enough with all the touring pros. He is especially close to his doubles partner, Roy Emerson, who also lives in the Newport Beach area. But there was a time when Laver did not get along with Pancho Gonzales. Bud Collins, a Boston writer with whom Laver has written a book to be published this month, says that it began with a typical Pancho ploy: "They were introduced, and when Laver reached out to shake hands Pancho gave him one of those Gonzales nods and left him there with an empty hand. Rod realizes now it was one of those psych things of Pancho's, a kind of gamesmanship, but it got to him."

Laver beat Gonzales for the first time at the Longwood Cricket Club in 1964. Pancho stormed off the court in a rage. After that, says Laver, they had their share of verbal locker-room battles, standing nose to necktie ( Gonzales is 6'3") and shouting at each other, usually over some tactic of Pancho's that irritated Laver.

But one night in Bogot�, says Laver, "it was me who acted the idiot—I slammed the ball around, threw rackets, complained about calls. Pancho couldn't wait to tell me off. He said, 'You're the worst. You're worse than I am and you're always complaining about me.' I said, 'Pancho, I quit complaining about you because I gave up on you long ago.' We kept yelling at each other.

"But you learn to understand Pancho. He's a great showman. He's psyching you all the time. You're ahead 3-1 and he's saying, 'Take it easy on an old man,' or 'Are you ever going to miss a forehand?' And then he gets the crowd laughing with something he has said, and suddenly he has ruined your concentration. Before you find it again he's put three in a row past you.

" Fred Stolle would fall for it every time. He'd end up trying to clown with Pancho. Pancho would crack a few jokes and Stolle would join in and they were both very funny. A circus. I told Fred, 'You can't do that with Pancho. He's laughing and he's beating hell out of you. It's costing you money.' "

Those players who must face the swarm of shots that make up the Laver repertoire (the reader can only imagine that experience, but it is something like trying to fend off a hornet with a kite stick) are free to blame a wily Australian pro named Charlie Hollis for their discomfort. Hollis ran a sporting-goods store in Northhampton and gave lessons to the Laver boys, and for years carried on a running argument with Roy Laver as to which of the boys was going to be the best player. "Rodney was the freak of the family, the only lefthander," says Roy. "I always said Trevor would be the best because he had very nice strokes. Hollis said no, because Trevor had my disposition—he blew up a lot. Rodney was like his mother. Calm. Under control."

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