The return of the Rod Laver Adidas tennis shoe – which has been described as a sneaker for grown men who are nonetheless not yet willing to go gently into that good night – got me thinking about the answer to an oft-asked question: Who is the greatest tennis player you ever saw?
The answer to that is simply “Rod Laver.” Look, Roger Federer fans, he will never be the answer to that question for this Nadalista, just as I am congenitally incapable of rooting for the Red Sox as a Yankee fan.
But in any event, it’s not a horse race between Feddy Bear and Rafa, because there was Rod Laver. What made Laver so great? Well, for one thing, he was a lefty, and a lefty serve is, I think, more difficult to read. Certainly, Bjorn Borg, who spent all those years bedeviling and being bedeviled by Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, thought so. And certainly it’s the reason Novak Djokovic is always looking to practice with a southpaw the day before he has to face Rafael Nadal (who plays lefty but is really a righty in southpaw clothing).
The righty-lefty thing is something I touch on in my new novel “Water Music,” in which Alí Iskandar is a prodigious southpaw tennis player – which gives right-handed rival, friend and lover Alex Vyranos fits.
But back to Laver, whose racket I proudly owned as a child. He wasn’t – isn’t – a big guy, about 5 feet, 8 inches. But he had a big serve-and-volley game that was thrilling to watch and adaptable to any surface, which may be why he remains the only man ever to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in a calendar year – twice.
More than that, Laver was that rarity – a genius mensch. (As NFL QB Quinton Day Novak observes in “In This Place You Hold Me,” the next novel in my “The Games Men Play” series, greatness doesn’t have to announce itself.) Before the Open era, which began in 1968 and ushered in professional tennis, the men played for beer money – the women for even less. The men would pal around with one another – especially the Aussies, who were very matey – barnstorming the local high schools. In the era of the gluten-free diet, the endless lining up of water bottles before a match, the Uncle Tonis and Judy Murrays, Rod Laver and company are not just another time. They’re another planet.
So is Laver the GOAT – the greatest of all time? Coach Nick Bollettieri was right when he told me that it’s hard to compare different eras. Then the rackets were wooden; the heads, smaller. So, too, were the players, serve-and-volley types who delighted in coming in at the net. The last great serve-and-volleyer was Fed, and he has long since given up that strategy. Today everyone’s a power player from the baseline, so much so that after one of Nole’s wins at the Australian Open in the Rod Laver Arena, he apologized to its namesake for not playing his brand of tennis. (No doubt that’s why Nole hired Boris Becker, who was a great serve-and-volleyer, to add an exciting ping-ping net game to his arsenal.)
It’s not just that the times are different but that time is. “The Greatest of All Time” implies the end of time. Fortunately for us, time hasn’t ended. Maybe the greatest ever is still out there. Maybe he’s a kid like Alí, from an improbable, far-flung place who’ll make it all the way to Wimbledon and be acclaimed the best there ever was.
In the meantime, there’s Laver, the Sandy Koufax of tennis, the greatest player – to date.