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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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"If I'm in trouble, I attack. It's my game. If I have the choice—play this ball back, just dump it back or try to hit it out—I go for the winner. Why just lob it back? You're liable to miss either way. Why go down with an easy shot? Better to put more pressure on the other player. Make him wonder what you are going to do.

"Sometimes in those situations I don't know what I'm going to do, but I do know I'm going to make the effort. I'm going to go for everything. Unless you give it a good run, how do you know if you can make the shot? I have hit a lot of silly-looking shots, balls off the end, drives off the throat, that were winners because I didn't give up on a ball. After a while, it can become a psychological thing. Run one down at 15-40 and make it, and you are only a point from being even. If you have hit a winner under pressure like that when the other guy thinks you wouldn't dare, you have got something else going. You've got him thinking.

"So even in practice I go for everything. Even balls that are way out—wide, off the fence, anywhere. Even a drop shot I have to take on the second bounce. A lot of the boys just catch the ball when it's out. How do they know the next time they're in an awkward position they'll be able to return one that's at their feet or past them? You might not look good doing it, but how you get the racket there doesn't matter. The fact you get it there does.

"I don't let the past bother me. I try to forget bad calls as soon as they happen. I don't want them to nag me. If a call is wrong in my favor, I say so and clear my conscience. If I double-hit one, I say so, or say no if I don't think I did, and then I think ahead."

There are moments when Laver's brilliance on the court is so sharply defined, so beautifully conceived, that the witness of it crowds a man's throat with pleasure and even the most unsophisticated tennis audience is heard to gurgle and ahhh. In a match against Drysdale, there were those moments. There was a time when the two of them were at the net, ebbing and flowing like waves in a bathtub, probing hard for an advantage, and Drysdale put in a drop shot that was unretrievable. Except Laver retrieved it, and not only manufactured a better model but pulled it off cross-court, angling it away, and when it struck down it was within inches of the net and running back. Drysdale dropped his racket and applauded with the crowd.

And there was a moment of sheer madness in the next set when Drysdale slammed him deep, then accepted Laver's return lob and slammed him again; then again; then had to wait again as Laver miraculously retrieved and lobbed it back, except this time with such fantastic spin the ball appeared to U-turn in the air, and when it came down it was so deep to the baseline that Drysdale's return was softened. Laver had him. Down the line he came with a scorching top-spin backhand that, were it allowed loose on a city street, would have been arrested as a fire hazard.

There are times even on his second service that Laver puts so much kick on the ball that even an old playing partner like Emerson has to jump to keep from being clipped on the chin. There are times, as he floats across the baseline, that Laver's ability to get to shots defies physics. "Experience gets you there," Laver says. "Experience and anticipation. Reflex makes the shot."

Laver says his reflexes are sound as ever; there are no signs of deterioration in his compact little body, and he notes, with some pride, that Drysdale appeared more tired than he after one match. Drysdale is 30, two years younger. The hurts and sicknesses Laver has suffered—yellow jaundice as a boy, tennis elbow, some vertebrae floating in his back that must occasionally be pampered by a chiropractor—have been spaced out almost as if by design and have never given his rivals false hope.

There are times, however, when he gets tired of talking about tennis, when the common denominator that got him the acquaintance wanes as a topic and he hears himself answering "That's a secret" to some sincere interrogator who wants to know how to correct a flaw in his own game by adopting this or that grip, stroke or incantation. "I'm not really trying to be flip," Laver says. "I just can't envision helping a fellow if I don't know for sure that he's not holding the racket between his legs."

There are times, too, when he talks wistfully about having his own plush tennis camp for advanced young players, in Atlantic City, say, where he would become a gentleman tennis teacher. It would be nice, he says, to be considered the greatest tennis player who ever lived, but he reckons there is, after all, no way of telling. And a fellow has to think about the time when he must leave being the best to some other bloke. Honest.

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