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Rod Laver exclusive: ‘Federer could be a movie star. Kyrgios? He needs to apply himself’

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Rod Laver Exclusive: “Federer could have been a movie star.  Kyrgios?  He needs to prove himself.” — GETTY IMAGES
Rod Laver Exclusive: “Federer could have been a movie star. Kyrgios? He needs to prove himself.” — GETTY IMAGES

There is still a figure in the sport that even Roger Federer admires. At 84, Rod Laver lives in the thinnest realm, and his status as the only player to ever win a calendar Grand Slam twice has made him the God Rod of tennis. The feeling of his high position is evident already at the moment of meeting him. Here at the Intercontinental Hotel in Greenwich, as Stefanos Tsitsipas poses for a selfie in the lobby and Bjorn Borg has breakfast with his wife Patricia, the setting for this interview was laid behind a VIP rope.

It is unusual for Laver to grant such an audience. After all, his reputation precedes him to the point where he can level up any tournament just by showing up. As Federer told him amid all the weeping theater of his farewell at the O2 arena next door: “Thank you for always being there.” Federer, by his own admission, idolizes Laver. He cried on his shoulder when the Rocket presented him with the Australian Open trophy in 2006. Ten years later he invented the Laver Cupthe game’s most luxurious team event dedicated to him, declaring his idol “to me the greatest of all time”.

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“I am proud that he treats past champions this way,” says Laver, now a close friend of Federer. “Roger and I immediately hit it off — that connection was what we both wanted. He is such an open character that I still remember our first meeting. Tony Roche, my longtime rival, has been coaching Roger on game mechanics since the summer. He was still a baseliner at this stage, but Tony felt he wanted to get into the net more often. He also thought that the two of us should be introduced, but at the presentation of the trophies in Melbourne, Roger broke down. It’s been amazing to see how things have unfolded since then.”

Rod Laver Exclusive: “Federer could have been a movie star.  Kyrgios?  He needs to prove himself.” — GETTY IMAGES
Rod Laver Exclusive: “Federer could have been a movie star. Kyrgios? He needs to prove himself.” — GETTY IMAGES
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Few moments have left a more indelible mark than Federer’s heartbreaking goodbye on the banks of the Thames, which turned the retiring icon into such a sobbing wreck that he had to hold Rafael Nadal’s hand for comfort.

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“Not many people retire like this,” Laver says. “I played Bjorn Borg when I was 38. I didn’t announce that it was my exit, but it was obvious that I was nearing the end. Roger had such a long and successful career that he knew he wanted something where he clearly said, “OK, that’s enough.” What he is going to do in the future, no one knows. His paths are open everywhere. He could be a movie star.”

It’s not all that far-fetched, given that Federer has already teamed up with Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway to shoot ads for Swiss tourism. But in London, it is Laver who receives the most lavish Hollywood treatment. Backstage at the O2 is a VIP area called the Rocket Club, furnished with giant black draperies and portraits of Laver, who has won each of his 11 major singles crowns. Quite expensive, as they say, for a person who is not at all an arrogant type. The closest he came to praising his own worth was after a stroke in 1998, when an American doctor asked him what he did for a living. “Tennis player,” he replied hoarsely. “I used to be pretty good.”

He’s a little overwhelmed by the reverence he continues to command. It’s not just that Federer paid an extravagant tribute through the Laver Cup, but the Australian Open named its main venue after him when he was only 60 years old. “I thought they were joking,” he laughs. “The fact that I was a Queenslander meant that the Victorian government had to give special permission. Then I thought, “This is getting bigger than I imagined.”

Laver had no megalomaniac growing up in 1940s Rockhampton, deep in the Queensland bush, where even the main roads were uncleaned and his reluctant rancher father treated any industrial injuries himself. This lack of fuss, coupled with a natural shyness, was reflected in his attitude towards tennis. “I let my racket speak for itself,” he explains. “As far as I understood, you didn’t need to introduce yourself to people. I just hit tennis balls. Roger is a little along the same lines. He plays this game because he loves it. You can tell how he will try something special until he perfects it. I did the same.

“With the racquet I used, the Dunlop Maxply, you had to have perfect timing to parry the shot. That’s why my game has performed well in the amateur world. Few people could use a wooden racket with this ability. While I persisted, I suddenly mastered the topspin. My coach Charlie Hollis told me, “You’ll never win Wimbledon with a light backhand.” You have to learn how to give the ball topspin.” These were learning curves. No other southpaw has learned how to hit topspins on the left. It took me to another level, a little higher.”

Rod Laver Exclusive: “Federer could have been a movie star.  Kyrgios?  He needs to prove himself.” — GETTY IMAGES
Rod Laver Exclusive: “Federer could have been a movie star. Kyrgios? He needs to prove himself.” — GETTY IMAGES

History judges him even more favorably. Today, Laver’s 198 singles titles represent the greatest individual success of all. In 1962, he was so unquestionably dominant that he not only won all four major tournaments, but also won 18 other tournaments. When he repeated the feat as a professional seven years later, Alastair Martin, chairman of the US Tennis Association, said on the court in Forest Hills: “I am absolutely tongue-tied. This is your second Grand Slam. You could very well be the best player we’ve ever seen.”

It was never Laver’s style to have his head spinning with hype. Even after cementing that totemic achievement by defeating Roche in four sets in the US Open final, he avoided all theatrics by shaking hands with ball boys and quietly sipping a glass of water. Almost perfection, in his opinion, was a prerequisite for the ambitions he set for himself.

“In the amateur world, winning Wimbledon was the most important moment in anyone’s career,” he muses. “That was the goal. I knew that I had to learn to play on the grass, to understand the pressure, to play in all situations. That’s how I improved, because of the intensity I had in myself. You learn footwork, you look at the ball a little more closely, and you have to be able to hit the center of the racket every time, not just once in 10.”

“Nick Kyrgios didn’t think he could win Wimbledon”

Restraint was at the core of his character. As Federer noted in the preface to his memoir, “Rod behaves with charming modesty.” It illustrates why Jimmy Connors seemed so annoyingly blunt to him, and why Ilie Năstase’s obnoxious behavior, calling Laver “old man” over the net in their mid-seventies matches, pissed him off. “You’re a disgrace,” Laver resented him in Cincinnati. “I will never play against you again.”

“It’s all about my love of sports,” he recalls. “Ilie was an incredible player, but you didn’t know anything about him. Did he enjoy playing tennis when he was young? Hence your makeup. Maybe you can be in a bad mood and throw your racket. Many players do this. I didn’t do it because I only had two to play with.”

As the arbiter of tennis etiquette, it’s interesting to know what Laver is doing with his compatriot Nick Kyrgios, the most modern racquet scavenger. Over the years, you’ve felt him biting his tongue at this “terrible kid,” a player who, in both behavior and temperament, is his diametrical opposite. After just one particularly dramatic relapse in 2019, he complained, “I don’t think Nick will ever learn.” But this year Kyrgios Shock run to the Wimbledon final prompted him to commute the sentence.

“Kyrgios has every ability in the world, every punch you could want,” Laver says. “He’s probably one of the biggest servers in the game. He is accurate and can play under pressure. I was thrilled that he made it to the final, but he didn’t think he could win Wimbledon. In my mind, I said, “Hey, show your best game. You may surprise yourself. A month or two later I said, “You can win some of these matches. Why don’t you apply yourself boy?

“I think it hit him to the core. He realized, “S…, I’m good enough, I can do it.” It was the greatest thing that happened to him. Unfortunately, he said he wanted to go back to Australia and not play in the Laver Cup. But he knows that now he can play and compete. Don’t walk around the court thinking, “If I win three games, that’s enough.” Now he thinks, “Next year? Wimbledon? You will see another player.”

Rod Laver Exclusive: “Federer could have been a movie star.  Kyrgios?  He needs to prove himself.” - SHUTTERSTOCK
Rod Laver Exclusive: “Federer could have been a movie star. Kyrgios? He needs to prove himself.” – SHUTTERSTOCK

In terms of mental strength, an attribute Kyrgios struggled to acquire, Laver set the gold standard. Hollis was the most exacting overseer, making sure not only that his best student had an exemplary shape, but also that he never became a hostage to complacency. Even at his age slam 53 years ago, his mentor sent a message: “Congratulations. Now do it again.” This psychological steel, according to Laver, was a vital element in his superiority. “In amateur competition, Roy Emerson was the only one who was going to beat me. I had to join the pro world at the bottom, and I knew that I would have to get my game in order in order to play without errors. I showed that I can do it.”

For this generation of masters of men’s sports, imitating Laver as a “slammer” proved unattainable. Federer has won three Majors in three different seasons, but has never won four. Nadal’s lean lasted until the Wimbledon semi-finals this year, where he was hampered by an injury. Novak Djokovic’s attack was the most painful of all when a Serb was denied death…



Source: sports.yahoo.com

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