- Joel Drucker
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In April, ESPN.com asked you, the users, to name tennis' greatest living legends. On May 5, we began rolling out your top five in ascending order, beginning with the "Rocket" Rod Laver at No. 5. The remaining legends will be presented each day, until No. 1 is revealed on Friday, May 9.
Take desire, add in an undeterminable amount of what some call talent, toss in the 10 percent likelihood of being left-handed, throw in a hearty work ethic and an appetite for competition -- and there you have it, one bona fide tennis genius, Rod Laver.
"Most of us thank God for our great shots," said one of Laver's fellow Aussies and many rivals, John Newcombe. "Rod takes his for granted."
Yet while Laver's brilliance was remarkable, he was no flashing comet but as enduring as the planet Jupiter. Only two men have accomplished a staggering tennis achievement, a calendar year sweep of all four Grand Slam events. American Don Budge was the first in 1938. Laver did it twice, first as an amateur in 1962, then again in 1969, the second year of the Open era.
Certainly statistics are the base level of assessing Laver's tally. The two Slams, 11 total singles majors, 20 Slams in total, as well as dozens of singles, doubles and Davis Cup victories.
But as fans of all sports know, there's a difference between mere numbers and sublime greatness. Laver is tennis' Willie Mays: a man who not only posted first-rate numbers, but did so in a way that dramatically and aesthetically enhanced everyone's appreciation of the game. Charisma can't be taught.
At his best, Laver could hit just about any shot from any part of the court, overpowering and outfinessing his confounded rivals with a range of harsh winners and deft angles, utterly smothering one victim after another with everything from court speed to topspin lobs, passing shots, forceful volleys and, most of all, the ability to strike big when it mattered most. Said Newcombe, "It's tempting to play safe when it got tight. Rod did just the opposite. He had the guts and the skill to pull it off constantly."
It was no fast path to the top. As a teen in Australia, Laver earned the name "Rocket" because he was so eager to strike big shots that his balls would fly out of the court. But for all their mockery and appreciation of what they call "rubbishing," Australian tennis folk tend to be quite sentimental and supportive of aspiring jocks.
"Rocket" was always highly encouraged by Aussie majordomo Harry Hopman. "Hop" had no doubt that the young left-hander's shots would soon enough find their way inside the lines with maddening consistency. And soon enough, "Rocket" was every bit as impressive a champion as his idol, Lew "Hoadie" Hoad, and his most notable rival, Ken "Muscles" Rosewall.
At a time when most lefties were known for poking slice backhands that were woefully ineffective against net-rushers, Laver honed a dipping topspin drive. That was just one tool in a complete arsenal.
Yet brilliance shines so brightly that it's sometimes easy to spot the dark spots. As Laver made his way to the top of the amateur game in the early '60s, it was thought that Laver's serve was not quite what it should be for a left-hander. His second serve was hardly forceful. Another rap was that his volleys -- particularly his forehand -- could go off and that his overhead needed more work. It's not easy being under a microscope in an individual sport.
But here was the key to Laver that's rarely discussed: He had a massive work ethic. In many cases, shot-makers like Laver eschew practice -- and grinders such as Bjorn Borg or Ivan Lendl tend to overlook variety. But Laver had both. He was a tennis gym rat, eager to spend hours on the practice court.
Here it's also necessary to give a glimpse into the tennis world circa 1963. Because he had turned pro -- accepting a $110,000 offer personally put up by Hoad and Rosewall -- Laver was barred from Grand Slam events. Not until 1968 did the game go Open, giving Laver the chance to compete again at places such as Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Forest Hills.
It's often noted how many Slams Laver might have picked up had he been able to play during those five years. But had there been Open tennis earlier, Laver would in no way have won any Slams in the early '60s. He was the first to admit that Hoad, Rosewall and others were better than him at that point. And they proved it soon after he turned pro by repeatedly pummeling the young Laver.
To his credit, Laver persevered, beefing up every one of his shots, adding more depth and power to the serve, firming up the volleys and even improving his court coverage. In 1965, Laver supplanted Rosewall as the pre-eminent professional. And by 1969, when he won his second season Slam, the entire world saw his brilliance at all of its major venues.
Yet as much as Laver sizzled when striking the ball with his elegant Dunlop Maxply Fort racket, what further endeared Laver to fans and foes was his utter lack of pretense. While the likes of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus enlarge themselves -- and their sport -- by publicly praising Tiger Woods, tennis often suffers because its combative, one-on-one mind-set creates an eternally competitive culture. Champions such as Budge tended to be quite frugal with praise for other players.
Not so with Laver. Since leaving the tour in the late '70s, he has not only been humble about his own achievements, but exceptionally generous in his praise for such champions as Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.
From the outback of Australia to Wimbledon and beyond, the Rocket had soared.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.