Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Rod Laver and the champions of tennis

A DISGRUNTLED newspaper reader sent in a letter to the editor the other day complaining about the way many top tennis players behave on court these days, and it put a big smile on me dial because I couldn't agree more.
Ya see I covered tennis for The Courier-Mail and international news agencies around the world for about 25 years in the '60s, '70s and early '80s before I moved on to column writing.
There were a couple of frowning, swearing, racquet-throwing dills around in those days but they were in the minority and never made it to the top.
Top players, mainly Aussies in those days, were really good blokes and sheilas.
Because there were no sports-star managers around to protect the players from the press like they do today, most journalists got to be good friends with sportsmen and women, including the blokes and sheilas at the top - world champs in whatever sport you covered.
I still count the great Rod Laver and the late, great Lew Hoad as two of my best friends in sport and I also got on very well with Ken Rosewall and Frank Sedgman. Back in those days Rod and Lew didn't know each other because those were the days of world-wide amateur tennis and the small group of professionals run by Jack Kramer.
Whenever Rod or Lew came to Brisbane for their separate tennis tours we would end up in the back bar of The Royal. They would give me a call when The Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail were housed in Queen Street, opposite the GPO, and we would slip into the back bar of the long-gone Royal Hotel for a grog or four.
In 1960, after four years on The Courier-Mail, mainly on police rounds, the sports department needed a bloke to assist the great Jack Reardon covering rugby league and they grabbed me out of police rounds because I had played rugby league for Wide Bay against France and New Zealand in the mid-fifties when I was a cadet journo on the Maryborough Chronicle.
I was also asked to cover tennis and that first year I met Laver, who at 20 had not won any major titles at that stage - but that was all about change. Rod was and is a great bloke, a real Queensland country boy even though he has lived in the US for many years.
I knew I would have to get to know him well if I was to get anywhere covering tennis, so I looked up his background and found that we had a lot in common. Like me, he was born in Rockhampton just five years after me. He had grown up on his dad's cattle station in the central west, not far from my uncle's cattle station, Vandyke, outside Sringsure, where I had spent all my holidays from a young age, mustering, fencing, boundary riding, branding, drafting and shooting - virtually the same as Rod. So we got on well from our first meeting talking about the central west, cattle, horses, rifles and shooting.
Whenever Rod returned to Brisbane from the amateur tennis tours we would end up at The Royal for you know what.
It was a watering hole for journalists, sportsmen and politicians.
In those days, tennis was angrily split in two - the amateurs, whose officials controlled all tournaments around the world, and the professionals, controlled by Kramer, who took his pros on world tours playing on rented amateur courts.
The top amateurs existed on reasonable contracts and travel expenses supplied by major sports goods companies and occasionally picked up mysterious brown paper bags after major tournament wins. Never did find out what was in those brown paper bags, but it didn't look like sandwiches.
But the main goal of most amateurs was to win a contract with Kramer and come into really big money.
Well, at the end of the year I first met Rod and started covering tennis, 1960, great things happened. Rod won his first major title, the Australian amateur singles at Milton, and that got Kramer very interested in this young red-headed Aussie. But Laver wasn't interested about turning pro because he was doing well as an amateur and didn't think he could match his school-day heroes like Hoad and Rosewall on the pro circuit.
So off he went on the amateur circuit in 1961 and won his first Wimbledon singles final. The big win made no difference to his quiet country attitude but boosted his confidence for big tournaments. So off he went again on his world tour in 1962 and what a year. He won the Australian, French, Wimbledon, US, Italian, German, Swiss, Dutch, Irish, Norwegian, British hardcourt and London grass court titles and the Grand Slam for the first time - only the second person in the game's long history at that stage.
That 1962 performance prompted Kramer to make a record pro circuit offer of $US110,000 - remember that was 50 years ago.
When Rod returned to Brisbane at the end of 1962 after his second Wimbledon win, we met at the Royal for you know what that night. But I still had a story to write so at closing time we purchased a couple of tall bottles of grog and went up next door to the sports department on the third floor where I finished the story and sat with Rod having a beer.
Around about midnight news came through on the teletype that US president, John F. Kennedy was threatening to bomb Cuba after its dictator, Fidel Castro, encouraged Russia to build army bases there so close to the US, which would certainly lead to a Third World War.
I thought about it for a couple of seconds then told Rod that if I was him I would contact Kramer immediately and accept his latest pro offer because international sport, including tennis, would be suspended if world war broke out.
Rod thought about it for a few minutes while he sipped a beer then said "Righto!"
So I rang Kramer's Australian rep, a Sydney lawyer, got him out of bed and told him Laver wanted to speak to him. And that was it. The contract was signed within days.
At that stage Rod didn't know Hoad and Rosewall and was very nervous about making his pro debut at Sydney's White City because he didn't think he could match his heroes. So he asked me could I go to Sydney with him for support. The Courier-Mail didn't fancy Kramer or pro tennis but when I told the great editor T.C. Bray what had happened, he told me The Courier-Mail would send me down to cover Laver's pro debut. That was January, 1963.
And that's what I did. But I have never seen a top sportsman as nervous as Rod was in those opening matches against Hoad, Rosewall and Sedgman. Hoad downed Laver in their first eight matches, and Rosewall won 11 of their first 13. But all that changed when Laver expelled his nerves over the next couple of months to become the greatest tennis player of all time.
I often see stories saying modern tennis stars have greater records of Grand Slam tournament wins than Laver. No way. Just remember that when Laver turned pro he was banned from all amateur tournaments around the world.
Have a look at his record: He won Wimbledon in 1961 and 1962. Was banned as a pro for the next seven years and when open tennis was introduced in 1968 returned to Wimbledon to win the singles that year and the next.
I have little doubt that if Wimbledon had been open when Rod turned pro he would have won the singles from 1961 to 1969 - nine years straight.
I've got a confession to make. I don't watch tennis any more and I doubt if any people of my age watch it either.
Ya see the '60s and '70s were the golden days of sport, particular tennis when the champions were true gentlemen, the likes of which will never be seen again. I'm so glad I was there to experience the good old days of sport.

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