First he couldn't feel his right leg. Then he couldn't feel his right arm. Rod Laver thought perhaps the bright lights that had been set up for the television interview that July afternoon in 1998 were making him dizzy. They weren't—he was having a stroke. Fortunately for Laver, the interview, for an ESPN segment on the 20th century's greatest athletes, was being taped just down the street from UCLA Medical Center. He spent the next month there.
For the first few weeks after the stroke, the two-time tennis Grand Slam winner struggled to even read a clock. He also suffered memory loss and couldn't speak coherently. "Mainly [the challenge of rehab] was trying to get the brain to absorb more things, because it was frustrating when you found yourself not being able to accomplish simple tasks," says Laver, 70, who worked with occupational, speech and conditioning therapists for four months and did daily therapy on his own. "Love from the family was the thing that got me through it."
His wife, Mary, realized he'd have to rebuild his tennis game from scratch, so she called Laver's longtime friend Tommy Tucker, the tennis pro at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif. "I would go to his house to pick him up, and he would be in the garage, practicing the footwork drills we'd done the day before," says Tucker, now pro emeritus at the club. "Each day he knew he got better. It was thrilling to see, actually."
In 1969 Laver, a lefty nicknamed the Rocket (for his Australian hometown of Rockhampton), thrilled tennis crowds worldwide when he completed his second Grand Slam. He'd accomplished the feat—winning the Australian, French and U.S. opens and Wimbledon—as an amateur in '62 (the first man to do so since Don Budge, in '38), then turned pro and did it again one year after the beginning of the Open era, which allowed professionals to compete alongside amateurs at the major tournaments. No male player has won a Grand Slam since. He retired from competition in 1979, then played on the senior tour and traveled extensively.
Described by fellow Aussie and former rival John Newcombe as one of "the most humble champions you'd ever want to meet," Laver has turned to golf to satisfy his competitive urge. Though he recovered his speech, memory and mobility within a year after the stroke, he has arthritis in his wrists and finds it easier to swing a golf club near his home in Carlsbad, Calif., than a racket. "We played [golf] back when we were amateurs," says Laver, a 10 handicap. "I was down to around a four or five before the stroke." He adds with a good-natured chuckle, "That stroke took all those strokes away from me."