The man whose tribute tournament Roger Federer chose to pivot his retirement over, was Rod Laver, tennis’ only two-time season Grand Slam champ – winning all four Majors in 1962 and 1969. The world will keep the GOAT pot stirring; for Federer, Laver, now 84, was “the greatest of all time.”
Federer had said, “Thank you for always being there,” of someone he confessed to worship. He had cried on Laver’s shoulder when he won the 2006 Australian Open, and after a decade and more of friendship, named the team event he envisaged in Laver’s honour.
In an interview with telegraph.co.uk, Rod Laver who was present to witness Federer draw the curtains on his career at O2 Arena, and cry us the Thames, spoke of how the two legends had instantly hit it off. “I’m proud that he feels that way about past champions,” he told telegraph.co.uk. “Roger and I hit it off immediately – this connection was something that we both wanted. He’s so wide open as a character, I can still remember our first meeting. Tony Roche, my old rival, had been coaching Roger on volleying mechanics. At this stage, he was still a baseliner, but Tony felt that he wanted to go to the net more often. He also thought that the two of us should be introduced, but at the trophy presentation in Melbourne, Roger broke down. It has been amazing to see how everything has unfolded since then.”
Retirement comes to all at some stage, but it seems the greater the player, the harder the moment. That was hard, @rogerfederer. We laughed, and cried, and celebrated with you, and we will continue to do so for a long time. Thank you for being a friend. 🚀 pic.twitter.com/qFhBaEApnR
— Rod Laver (@rodlaver) September 24, 2022
Laver’s own retirement back in the day had been a sedate affair. “Not too many people retire like that,” Laver says. “I played Bjorn Borg when I was 38. I didn’t announce that it was my retirement, but it was obvious that I was coming to the end. Roger had such a long, successful career, he knew he wanted there to be something where he said clearly, ‘OK, that’s enough.’ What he’s going to do in the future is anybody’s guess. His avenues are open everywhere. He could become a movie star.”
The two came from similarly grounded, level headed backgrounds. While Federer started at a nearby tennis club with his parents always encouraging but never pushy, Laver grew up, a son of a hardy cattle former in Queensland, Australia. Both remained fairly unaffected by fame and displaying no touch of hubris. Telegraph.co.uk narrated an incident that portrayed how lightly Laver wore his fame. “The closest he came to extolling his own virtues was after his stroke in 1998, when a US doctor asked what he did for a living. “Tennis player,” he replied, groggily. “I used to be fairly good.”’ they wrote.
Federer had noted in the foreword to his memoir: “Rod conducts himself with an endearing humility.” It’s why he found Jimmy Connors so gratingly abrasive, and why Ilie Nastase’s obnoxious conduct, referring to Laver as “old man” across the net in their mid-Seventies match-ups, tipped him over the edge, telegraph notes adding Laver seethed: “You’re a disgrace. I’ll never play against you again.”
Laver would chuckle in the same interview about another extravagant tribute that astounded him. When the Australian Open named their main show court after him when he was still only 60, he was surprised at the outset. “I assumed they were joking. The fact that I was a Queenslander meant the Victorian government had to give special approval. I thought then, ‘This is getting bigger than I imagined.’” he said.
Another quality that is mirrored in Federer was the tennis bubble they were cocooned inside, where hitting the tennis ball the way they did, sufficed. Packaging was superfluous. “I let my racket do the talking,” he explained to the Telegraph.co.uk. “The way I saw it, you didn’t have to introduce yourself to people. I just hit tennis balls. Roger is a little in the same vein. He plays the game because he loves it. You can tell, in how he’ll try something quite particular until he perfects it. I did the same.”
His Dunlop Maxply, demanded perfect timing to put the shot away. “That’s why my game did well in the amateur world. Not many people could use a wooden racket with such ability. As I persevered, all of a sudden I was mastering topspin. My coach, Charlie Hollis, told me: ‘You’ll never win Wimbledon with a slice backhand. You must learn to put topspin on the ball.’ Those were the learning curves. No other lefties had learned to hit a topspin backhand. It put me at another level, that little bit higher.” He would dominate 1962 sweeping all majors, plus win 18 other tournaments.
After he repeated the feat as a professional in 1969 Alastair Martin, chairman of the United States Tennis Association, said on court at Forest Hills: “I’m absolutely tongue-tied. This is your second grand slam. You might very well be the best player we’ve ever seen.”
He would explain how Wimbledon became the epitome of his goals. “In the amateur world, winning Wimbledon was the most important thing in anybody’s career. That was the goal. I knew that I had to learn how to play on grass, to understand the pressure, to play all types of occasions. That’s how I improved, because of the intensity I had in myself. You’re learning footwork, you’re watching the ball a little more closely, and you have to be able to hit the middle of the racket every time, not just once in 10.”
A nice man amongst brats
He was too cool for school too – and for schoolboy antics like smashing racquets, adding it could be down to enjoying tennis when young. “It was all about my love of the sport,” he recalled. “Ilie was an unbelievable player, but you didn’t know anything about him. Did he enjoy playing tennis when he was young? This is where your make-up comes from. Maybe you can be bad-tempered and throw your racket around. A lot of players do. I didn’t, because I only had two to play with.”
Laver had lamented in 2019 about Nick Kyrgios: “I don’t think Nick will ever learn.” But Kyrgios’ shock run to a Wimbledon final revised his assessment. “Kyrgios has all the ability in the world, every shot that you could wish to make. He’s probably one of the biggest servers in the game. He’s accurate, he can play under pressure. I was thrilled that he reached the final, but he didn’t think he could win Wimbledon. In my mind, I said, ‘Hey, put in your best performance. You may surprise yourself.’ A month or two later, I said, ‘You can win some of these matches. Why don’t you apply yourself, man?’