The Tennis Channel’s Signature Series: Rod Laver was an excellent episode for tennis fans. A few things stood out to me.
Tennis as a Blue Collar Sport in Australia
The documentary explained that tennis was a blue collar sport in Australia. Laver and his family built their own court, and Rod looked at tennis as a great way to test his athletic skills. I would love it if tennis were viewed as a blue collar sport here in the United States. I think too often talented young athletes in my home country are steered away from tennis due to it being viewed as an elitist sport.
Extreme Levels of Sportsmanship
Rod Laver in both the footage of his matches and in his more recent interviews was exceptionally gracious to his opponents. Laver may not have been as laconic as Bjorn Borg was during points or matches, but his post match celebrations would make Borg falling to his knees look like a scene from Carnival in Rio. Rod talked about how he loved to play in pressure situations and that he loved to compete, but one never saw Laver do anything too demonstrative on the court. Rod mentioned how Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors brought a new style to the game in the 1970’s. I think tennis is smart to market both players’ games and personalities because it is an individual sport with no protective head gear shielding facial expressions from the crowd. Still, it is odd for me to think of how different the decorum once was.
Transition to the Pros
Rod Laver spoke about how difficult it was to transition from the amateur game to the professional game. His thoughts confirm many suspicions that the Grand Slam champions in many years prior to the Open Era were not necessarily the best players in the world. This makes comparing players from different eras quite difficult because a player whose professional career ended before the Open Era may very well have been dominant despite having few to no Grand Slam titles from his early amateur career.
Laver and the Open Era
Wimbledon hosted a professional event two weeks after the amateur event ended in 1967. This is probably the closest situation to what is about to take place in terms of the Olympic games being held so close to the Championships. Laver won this event in 1967, and his victory was instrumental in calming fears that professional players may not compete as hard as amateurs. With Wimbledon on board, open tennis could get off the ground in a manner that maintained ties to the sport’s roots. Had Laver not convinced people of the purity of professional athletes, tennis today may have an entirely different list of major tournaments. Oddly enough from the footage, it is clear that the trophy from the 1967 Wimbledon Pro event is the trophy used today whereas the trophy Rod won earlier in his amateur career at the All England Club has been retired.
Rod Laver finishing 4th in the swimming event
One of my favorite side stories from the documentary was footage of Rod Laver competing and doing quite well against elite athletes from other sports in a 1973 event called The Superstars. Due to lower prize money and salaries, athletes were open to the idea of a competition across sports to gain some measure of an idea as to who is the greatest athlete in the world. Today, the risk of losing money due to injuries will prevent us from seeing Rafael Nadal and Lebron James in a bicycle race, but The Superstars was a cool idea with a long history. In 1973, the athletes competed at swimming, cycling, sprinting, distance running, tennis, weight lifting, golf, bowling (?) and table tennis among other events. Laver upheld the Australian tradition of well-rounded athleticism by doing quite well. In one clip, he was killing some poor soul in table tennis. Laver was solid across the board finishing 4th in swimming, 3rd in the 100 M dash, and 3rd in the bicycle race. Laver finished in a tie for 3rd after all of the events had been held. Given that Rod was not in his prime as a tennis player in 1973, I have to believe this is a strong indication of his athletic prowess.
Anyone who follows tennis semi-seriously knows who Rod Laver is. This documentary helped to bring his life and career into greater relief. Rod Laver is a true gentleman and sportsman. His competitive fires and his manners were not mutually exclusive. I can’t say for sure that I know what Pete Sampras felt when watching videos of Laver and Rosewall and thinking that he wanted to play the way Rod and Ken did. However, this documentary gave me a much better idea of why Sampras, Becker, McEnroe, Federer and Nadal heap praise on Laver.