The Education of a Tennis Player
By Rod Laver, Bud Collins
New Chapter Press Copyright © 2009 Rod Laver
All rights reserved.
TURN OFF THE RAIN
THE NIGHT MARY HUNG UP ON ME THE YEAR NEARLY WENT sour.
I was almost through the biggest year of any tennis player — maybe any athlete — ever had when the pressure that suddenly grabbed me was one that almost every man has felt: domestic. I had an unhappy, angry wife who wanted me home when I had to be somewhere else 3,000 miles away, and who ended the argument strongly — she stopped talking to me. Although numerous husbands would consider that a lucky break, I did not. There's no way I can play or feel well if there's something wrong between me and Mary.
For a while I worried that it would stay wrong, just when I was within reach of everything. If it had, I couldn't have joined those exceptional athletes who made 1969 such an extraordinary year in sports.
So many wonderfully improbable things happened in 1969: The New York Jets ruled football. Those magnificent antiques, the Boston Celtics, came to life one more time to conquer basketball. The New York Mets climbed out of the trashcan to glitter atop baseball. Arnold Palmer, who had begun to be regarded as a monument to past glories, began to win golf tournaments again. And in tennis, where I had labored practically underground since becoming a professional in 1963, I won the first open Grand Slam and became something of a household name.
This was my year, 1969, and people were becoming aware of me and my sport. I realized this when Americans began asking me for my autograph — on the street and in other public places away from tournaments. This had been going on for a number of years in England and Australia, where there is a substantial tennis public. In Time magazine, an article referred to British talk-show host David Frost as "the Rod Laver of television ... [who] would consider success in the U.S. the culmination of his own grand slam." A couple of years before, my name would never have been used for that sort of comparison in Time. Sporting references are common but tennis is never the sport cited. Not in the United States. In his World War II memoirs Field Marshal Montgomery could talk about breaking Nazi General Rommel's serve, but that was for British consumption.
It meant more to me than just seeing my face and name more frequently, in wider pictures and taller type. It meant that the game I've devoted my life to was beginning to catch on big and that more and more people were becoming aware of it and recognizing that it was the best game for them.
Life had been very different seven years before, in 1962, the first time I made the Grand Slam. Then the Slam was an affair for amateurs only. Open tennis — the integration of amateurs and professionals in competition-was a long way off, and seemed unlikely to arrive during my career. I was an amateur making a comfortable living from playing. Twenty-four years old without a worry. Single. Free. Hitting a tennis ball. Seeing every bit of the world I could. Having a few beers. Partying a bit. That was all that was on my mind. Most people felt that was about all my mind could hold: another bland, efficient Australian tennis champion. A countrywoman of mine, Lemeau Watt, once remarked at a tennis party: "Rod does his job extremely competently and thoroughly. No show, no emotion. Like a good plumber. A plumber doesn't put on a show down there alone in the basement, does he? On the court Rod is totally oblivious to his surroundings."
I don't think of myself as just another Australian, though I'll agree we aren't the most flamboyant breed. I do have some distinguishing marks, although hardly any that would make you single me out as a big-time athlete. Red hair, scrawny, 49,000 freckles, a crook in my nose and a bow in my legs. Maybe I have a certain appeal to the spectators because I seem ordinary enough to be one of them. Maybe, but are they looking for the ordinary, even if they can identify with it?
There's one thing: my unimpressive body hangs from King Kong's left arm. Of course, it probably doesn't seem that unusual from the grandstand. I was stunned myself when Dave Anderson of The New York Times tape-measured me one afternoon in 1968 and reported that my left forearm is twelve inches around — as big as Rocky Marciano's was. And my left wrist is seven inches around. Floyd Patterson, another former heavyweight champion, has a six-inch wrist.
I guess I hit tennis balls more times than Rocky and Floyd hit people, although not as damagingly. The balls still had some bounce when I got through with them. You couldn't say that for many of Rocky's opponents.
I imagine throwing a good punch is as satisfying as punching a winning volley. A lot of things changed for me in the seven years between Slams, but not the indescribably joyful sensation of hitting a tennis ball well. The hacker has to do this only once to sense what I'm talking about, and then he goes in pursuit of a repeat. It may take him ten minutes to find it again, but it's worth it. I'm lucky because I've been hitting the ball well for years. It's still an obsession. I suppose the same is true for a batter in baseball. I know it is for a golfer. I love golf, and shoot in the eighties whenever I can find time to play. The trouble with baseball and golf is you don't get to hit the ball enough. The better you hit the golf ball, the fewer opportunities per round you have to experience that great feeling.
Boxing and tennis, however, give you as much swinging and hitting as you want. Strangely, although they may seem worlds apart, boxing and tennis have a certain kinship. Two individuals head-to-head, probing for weakness and attacking it. Footwork, timing and stamina are essential. Just you and your opponent in there until one of you is beaten. There's no brain damage in tennis — although sometimes I wonder.
The element of inflicting physical harm is meant to be absent in tennis, but it isn't unheard of. This isn't the garden party game that originated among Victorian gentlemen in England. It's not hockey by any means, but players get "toey," as we say at home — edgy, annoyed — and punches get thrown. Probably the stroke-of-the-year for 1969 was the left hook with which an Englishman, Roger Taylor, gashed and flattened an Australian, Bob Hewitt, following their acrimonious match in West Berlin. Taylor won the match and the fight, but lost money because his hand broke against Hewitt's head and he couldn't play for a while. Even though he won, Roger was embarrassed. Antagonisms can develop during a match, but they don't often blossom so violently. Hewitt was embarrassed, too. We Aussies regard the English — we call them Pommies (for pomegranate eaters) — as below us in sport. In fist fighting, the English are the ones who get knocked down. But Roger Taylor made up for all those hopeless English heavyweights in boxing history, and you won't catch me badgering Roger the way Bob did.
Nor was I going to badger Mary when she boxed my ear by dropping the receiver resoundingly to end our conversation.
Nothing could bother me the last time around the Slam. Now I was bothered. Then I didn't understand the workings of mortgages or wives. I didn't have either. Now I had one of each.
I don't know that my understanding is much greater, but I have learned that they take some thought and concern and effort, particularly the wife.
I had put through this call from Boston to our home in Corona-del-Mar, California, on a July night only eight days after I'd won Wimbledon, the tournament that is synonymous with the British championship — and the world singles title. With Australia and France already in the sack, I was at the three-quarter pole on the run for the Slam and only a few weeks away from the finish at Forest Hills.
The conversation with Mary wasn't good. It was the worst of my life, and though I could see why she was furious, there wasn't much I could do about it. If you know how to stop the rain in Boston, let me know and we'll make a lot more money in that line than in tennis.
Rain. That was what had put me and Mary in such a long-distance bind. I've heard about that Spanish plain, but it can't be as wet as Longwood Cricket Club during a tennis tournament. When O. C. Smith, the country singer, went on about the summertime rain in Indianapolis, he should have checked out Boston to really find out about rain.
Like India, Boston has a predictable monsoon season: it arrives when I arrive.
It was my sixth visit to Boston for the U.S. Pro Championships, and I was trying to win the title for the fifth time. Only once in all those years was the tournament not in danger of floating away.
Pancho Gonzalez and I played the 1964 final, the first year I won, in a driving nor'easter, on sloshed grass. In 1968, there was so much rain that we had to abandon the tournament and return two months later to complete it.
At the end of the summer of 1969, when I completed the Slam at swampy Forest Hills — Boston weather had gone South — the reporters marveled at the way I played in the muck, particularly the British journalists. They'd never seen such good tennis under such bad conditions, they wrote following my victory over Tony Roche. But that's only because they'd never covered tennis in Boston where I had trained well to become a bog-runner.
Nobody has drowned yet playing at Longwood, but I've fallen into enough puddles to worry about the possibility. I'm always pleased whenever the club lifeguard, attends the matches.
I don't know what it is with Longwood, but in 1965 it seemed to be the only place rain fell during a New England drought. The club president then, the late John Bottomley, felt a little guilty in church on our semifinals Sunday. The priest led a prayer for rain — "for the farmers" — and John said he was praying for dry weather for the tennis players. "Actually," he said, "it was a split prayer, because I was with the farmers, too. But I knew I'd lose. We'd get drenched and the farmers would parch."
That's what happened. Mary was well aware of Boston's record, and she was worried that the tournament would drag on, eating into the last time we'd have together before our baby came at the end of the summer.
Pregnancy didn't help her disposition. She hadn't had a baby for seventeen years — there were three of them in her first marriage — and she was getting cumbersome and uncomfortable.
We'd had a marvelous time at Wimbledon, living in a quiet flat at Dolphin Square, a large block of apartments near the Thames. I'd spent very little time with my American wife during a year jammed with frantic traveling. London was pleasant even though I had to concentrate on the tournament. At least we were together.
After Boston, we were going to have nine more days, and then she'd be alone the rest of the summer, alone when the baby was due to come on finals day at Forest Hills.
That was the obstetrician's prediction: September 7. If everything went well for the Laver family, that would be the day of the Grand Slam for me and the Grand Slim for her.
We parted at London airport. I flew to Boston. She went over the Pole to Los Angeles, which is fifty miles from our home that hung over the Pacific at Corona-del-Mar. Her flight was delayed, and arrived several hours late. By the time she got home the glow of London was gone and she was nervous and tired. How else should she have felt?
In the back of my mind I thought I might be joining her in a couple of days. Everybody has a letdown after Wimbledon, and I wouldn't have been startled if somebody had beaten me in Boston. After I won the tournament, Arthur Ashe commented: "Laver has to be inhuman to play that well after Wimbledon. You just have to have a letdown, but he didn't!"
That summer I was inhuman, I guess. Mary probably thought so for a while even more than my opponents.
While I've been complaining about Boston weather, I have nothing but good feeling about the place and the people. It's where pro tennis finally began to grow up, and maybe where the entire game started to turn around and head toward a boom.
The U.S. Pro Championships had been played since 1927, the year after competitive professional tennis began. In 1926, an American sports promoter, C. C. (Cash-and-Carry) Pyle launched a new spectator sport by signing the French Diva, Suzanne Lenglen, ex-U.S. champ Mary K. Browne, Vincent Richards, Harvey Snodgrass, Paul Feret, and Howard Kinsey to go on tour. Richards won the first U.S. title over Kinsey at a place called Notlek Tennis Courts, a site in Manhattan long since buried beneath a building.
The tournament had good days and mostly bad days in the years that followed, but it hardly became one of the great events. In 1963, my first year as a pro, Ken Rosewall beat me in the final, and the payoff was zero. Attendance at Forest Hills was poor, the promoters went broke, and all they could present us with was "sorry, fellows." Even on toast it wouldn't taste good.
There were no plans to continue the staggering tradition until Ed Hickey, a public relations man for the New England Merchants National Bank — and a tennis nut — talked his bosses into sponsoring us. The bank put up $10,000 in prize money, and Longwood, the second oldest club in America (1877), took us in. Just when it appeared that the pros wouldn't even appear in America in 1964, Boston rescued us, and due to the good name of the bank we were able to line up sponsors in a few other cities and get a small circuit going. Despite the weather, Boston was a success. We were in business unexpectedly in the United States.
That summer on the eight-city American circuit Kenny Rosewall was our leading money winner with $8,800, while I was third with $6,900. At Longwood alone in 1969 I won $8,600, and in 1970 first prize went up to $12,000. The financial advances in pro tennis have been pretty substantial, today dealing in the millions. But we felt like millionaires with the Boston payoffs.
Because of this, we pros have felt an obligation to Boston, the bank and the club and their tournament. They meant new life. That's one reason, that I always wanted play well there. No letdowns in Boston, although, as I said, it wouldn't have surprised me to do badly.
There was more than the $8,600 first prize on my mind. There was Mary and my first child.
Still, with luck, I told her in London, we'd be seeing each other in a week's time and have those nine days together, to fix up the nursery, to relax in the lovely home I seldom lived in.
"See you next Monday," she smiled, "and tell them to turn off the rain this time."
For five days it was perfect. Then on Saturday the inevitable downpour began. "We'll play the final Monday. See you Tuesday," I told Mary over the phone confidently. I was playing well and believed I'd be in the final.
"Look, it isn't fair," she said, "for them to keep you there if the rain goes on and on. Last year you came back later to finish it. They could do the same thing this year if it rains again Sunday."
And it did rain. And I had to call Mary. This call I dreaded. Now my arrival was pushed back to Wednesday — if the rain stopped, that is. Maybe later.
"They can't keep you there indefinitely," she reasoned. "Tell them you're leaving Tuesday regardless of what happens. I want you to leave Tuesday ..."
"But I can't just walk out, Mary," I replied.
"It wouldn't be walking out if you tell them now. Tell them that you've made plans, and you're already staying over. Just explain that you have to leave Tuesday and they'll juggle the schedule or reschedule entirely."
We talked that over for a while, and her mood wasn't good. Then, abruptly she said, "Well, Rod, if you aren't home Tuesday, don't bother to come ..."
Bang! went the receiver in California. The click went through me like a sonic boom. Mary is a strong girl. She slams a receiver as hard as I slam an overhead.
What did she mean? I wasn't about to redial and ask.
Was one more day away that big a deal? Before Mary begins to seem the villainness of this piece, I'd like to make it clear that she's the heroine. Without her and the sense of purpose she's brought to my wandering life, there'd have been no Grand Slam of 1969. I'd be a very good player if she weren't sharing my life, I'll concede that. But I'd be a very lonely one, and not so good as I became. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Education of a Tennis Player by Rod Laver, Bud Collins. Copyright © 2009 Rod Laver. Excerpted by permission of New Chapter Press.
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