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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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Honesty is what gees with poor. As in "My friends were poor, but honest" (All's Well That Ends Well, Act 1) or "She was poor, but she was honest" (old Army ballad). Rodney George Laver learned honesty—also compassion, humility and a top-spin backhand—at his father Roy's knee and on the family's homemade tennis courts in the harsh bush country of Queensland, Australia. Roy Laver was a cattle rancher and poor enough, and you would have had to range far into the Outback to find a man more tautly honest than he. When Roy refused to accept his wedding portrait in 1919 it was because the photograph made him look too good. "I reckon that's not Roy Laver," he said. His wife Melba begged him to keep it. "It makes you look handsome," she said. "I reckon that's not Roy Laver," said Roy, closing off the debate.

Roy and Melba Laver came east for the first time the other day. They took leave from their home in Gladstone, near the Great Barrier Reef where the fishing is good, and the two of them came and discovered America as it is experienced by their son Rod, who is called "the Rocket." They lived in his new home in California, where they had a choice of seven bathrooms and where they learned to shoot a game of pool and where there is a faded wedding portrait of Melba on the wall but none of Roy, and they traveled with Rod to Miami and Dallas and New York, and they watched without comment as grown men fawned over their son and pushed maroon Cadillacs on him to drive around and tried to pair him with Elke Sommer for mixed doubles. And they listened to the shuffle of thousands of dollars changing hands (to Rodney's from somebody else's) as Rod the Rocket ground out a living being the world's greatest tennis player.

And wherever they went Rod Laver pulled the chair out for his mother and opened the car door, and in the elegant supper clubs and country-club dining rooms ate every meal with his parents and saw to their needs and drove them places and deferred to them in conversation, and if they had noticed they would have seen that he never appeared uncomfortable that they were old, and the look of the Australian country was on them, standing out against the slick tapestry of the buckled-and-bowed society in which Rod now often moves. And that when most of the beautiful people were busy in the afternoon trying to rub elbows with Burt Bacharach or Dina Merrill, Rod was down on the beach, more or less alone, giving his legs a red (the Rocket does not tan).

Then, of an evening at the Aventura Country Club in Miami, before the pro tournament there, the Lavers sat at dinner and listened without a word as Cliff Drysdale, the tennis player from South Africa, told his favorite Honest Rod Laver story. Drysdale delights in Laver and happens to be some of the things that Rod is not. Glib, for example. And tall. And handsome. He is also not the tennis player Laver is, and over that he has no hangups because he is in the select company of everybody else. When approached after a match with Laver, Drysdale is likely to say, "Well, what would you like to know about Rodney Laver?"

Drysdale appreciates the sound of his own voice as it artfully rolls the words over his tongue, and he launched into a vignette about a time in Bristol, England when he actually defeated Laver in a match. He said those were moments to treasure, like births and graduations, and he remembered every minute. The conditions, to begin with, were terrible. They were playing in the morning "out in the scrub" (a distant court), and the net broke, and there was a delay to find the groundsman, and the umpire acted as though he wished he were somewhere else and was so bad they suggested he "let us call the game and we'll just write in the score."

Boiled down, the punch was this: there were three calls the umpire made that Laver overruled. Each one cost him a point and, ultimately, the match. "He needn't have done it," said Drysdale. "He needn't have opened his mouth over any of them. But he did. I don't know anybody else who would have."

Old Roy Laver listened to this and nodded and maybe it was the slanting lights of the dining room but there was a glistening at the corners of his eyes, as though something had been nudged high up under his rib cage. And later, sitting in the stands watching the Aventura finals in which, ironically enough, Drysdale caught Rod Laver on an off night and defeated him for the third time in 10 years, Roy Laver reviewed "all this" that he had seen of his son's life in America and said proudly, "Rodney is the same as you see him. He's the same Rodney."

The moral of the story being, of course, that there is nothing that says you have to be poor to be honest.

Rodney (Rocket) Laver, age 32, professional tennis player, won 13 championships and $201,000 on the job last year, a figure roughly equivalent to what the President of the United States gets since his salary was doubled a Congress or so ago and a total unmatched even by those most affluent of international bourgeois sportsmen, the leading money-winners of professional golf. Except for Lee Trevino, there wasn't a golfer last season within the stretch of a $50,000 bill of Laver, and Trevino was barely that.

To keep the wolf further from the door of his home in fashionable Corona del Mar, Calif., Laver also collected on some investments and received compensation in varying amounts for endorsing tennis rackets, shoes, socks and shirts, a ball machine, a calibrated exercise device and a new plastic tennis court called Uniturf (soon to be marketed under the name Laverturf), thereby raising himself to even dizzier heights on the American income-tax scale. At one point Laver was advocating a wooden racket in some countries and an aluminum one—now his consistent choice—in others. It gives an inkling of the pretty pass professional tennis has come to since the gypsy days of one-night stands and prize-money checks bouncing as high as the balls and Pancho Gonzales racing stock cars to make ends meet. Laver has already won $195,000 this year ("Rude, isn't it?" he says), and Heaven knows what will prevent him from reaching $300,000 because there appears to be no one on Earth capable.

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