"I was out on the court and it hit me: 'What the hell am I doing here? I don't feel like playing. I don't want to play.' The floor was poorly lit, with tapes marking the lines. The balls were like rocks. They would hit the tape and skid. The fans were way back beyond a bicycle track, and when the ball ran off the court it ran for 50 yards. You made a good shot and four people clapped. I thought, 'They don't care, why should I?' Mental fatigue. You know the guy across the net is trying to beat you, and you have your reputation and your pride, and it still doesn't come, and then you start making the wrong shots or not making any shots at all. It stops being fun then, and tennis had always been fun to me. I lost and all I cared about was that it was over. I was sick of it all."
The feeling passed, of course. And Laver acknowledges that "the one-night stands made a better player of me. I never saw the bottom of a suitcase, but I had the best competition possible. In the amateurs you might have two tough matches in an entire tournament. This was a tough match every night—Hoad one night, Rosewall the next and so forth. I had to get better."
So, ultimately, did playing conditions. A banker in Boston named Ed Hickey had a 12-year-old daughter who had met Laver and liked watching him play in his floppy while hat and she couldn't understand why the big amateur tournament at Longwood didn't have him in it. The banker began to wonder, too, and one dollar led to another until he had his bank putting together a $10,000 pro tournament. "It seemed like 10 million," says Laver. The Longwood tournament is currently the $50,000 U.S. Pro Championship. And in 1968 holy Wimbledon opened its doors to the pros, and the other major tournaments followed. World Championship Tennis, headed by Lamar Hunt, then absorbed the National Tennis League and the guts of the pro tour became a series of $50,000 tournaments. Touchdown.
To make the new life even more pleasant, Laver had taken a wife. During a layover in Los Angeles he had noticed a girl with a deep tan at a club there. "The girl," says Mary Laver, "was me." She says she had an idea that his heart belonged to Mary the day Rod went home to Australia from South Africa by way of Los Angeles.
The best way to play Rod Laver today would appear to be in 1981. There are those who do not agree he dominates the game. These people are known as "diehards." Dennis Ralston, for example, says, "Laver does not dominate. Ten or 12 of us on the pro tour could beat him." Ralston has beaten Laver twice in 14 matches. "You know the guy's the best in the world, you just don't know if he's going to be the best tomorrow," says Arthur Ashe. Ashe has never had a tomorrow and they have played 13 matches.
Obviously having to face the Rocket gets to a man after a while. Even beating him does not swell a confidence for very long. Immediately after upsetting Laver at Aventura, Cliff Drysdale was heard to say, "You have not seen Rodney at his best."
Most of the theories on how to cope with Laver start off positively enough, then lapse into sighs of introspection. "You always think you can beat Rocket," says Gimeno, "but you know you will not if he is the real Rocket." Gimeno holds to an interesting theory that Laver hits the ball sooner than anybody else, a fraction of a moment that makes the difference. Roche says there is nowhere to attack Laver because he is dangerous both forehand and backhand, deep or at the net. Rosewall says Laver's shots from impossible, unorthodox positions boggle the concentration. Gonzales used to talk about the Laver "discipline" and how it "wears you down."
It is generally agreed that only Tony Roche comes near to having the assortment of flavors Laver can produce, and only Lew Hoad, among recent players, was capable of as much maddening spin.
The special ingredient in Laver's game could well be something entirely different from all these things. The symptoms of that ingredient are these: when Laver is behind, he appears to be—he is—more dangerous; when he is forced into the extremes of the court, into the corners, he has an astonishing faculty for drawing back and ripping through his best shots. There is a suspicion around that he is only at his best when he is behind and has to rally. He seems always to be making it back from 15-40, or two sets to love.
On a plane ride to Los Angeles one afternoon recently, Laver took stock of these phenomena and agreed that at those most precarious times a kind of calmness settles over him; and whereas before he might not have made a certain shot, or in the previous set he had been drab and inconsistent, he comes to the realization that "they can't shoot you if you lose," and the pressure dissolves. Then, the blitz.