Sure, top-spin was around before Rod Laver, but it was “Rocket” who brought the potentially-lethal tactic to life

Strong as he  was, Rod Laver’s trademark was  his lethal top- spin subtlety Strong as he was, Rod Laver’s trademark was his lethal top-spin subtlety Image: Getty Images

Many tennis players over the decades have introduced quirks of technique into the game, especially as racquet technology and court surfaces have developed: fast serves,idiosyncratic ground- strokes, better agility. But not many have changed the way the game is played.

Rod Laver did. No one knows whether Laver actually invented top-spin, but looking back, it’s fair to say the technique meant little until this little magus of the Magnus effect began to use it. His gigantic left forearm (sometimes it seemed his smallish body was merely its appendage), his quick-swinging technique, his power on both sides, his agility and his exquisite timing made him the consummate exponent of the wristy groundstroke. It wasn’t the only thing this diminutive but sharp-eyed and savage striker did differently. Laver was an innovator who introduced unprecedented subtlety to the game of tennis.

Rodney George Laver, born 1938, found more ways to win, and won more, than any other player before him. The freckle-faced, bandy-legged farmer’s son from Rockhampton had gears the game had never seen in a player. In the back of the court, or at the net, Laver was devastating, employing such intricacies of technique, even in the heat of a furious exchange, that he left opponents exasperated. Top-spinning lobs, under-spinning drop shots, stroke volleys, power to burn, and an amazingly varied, wide-swinging serve – he had a formidable armoury. The Rockhampton Rocket was the first man to turn the lob into an attacking shot, using top-spin. That lob is still one of the best ever seen. His volleys, often full-stroked, were a dangerous weapon that took the serve-and-volley game to new heights.

That deceptively freckled head housed the mind of a tennis genius. Behind those deceptively hooded eyes a million calculations went on for every move. That deceptively ordinary body had the proficiency to deliver the answers.

Laver’s unique combination of subtlety and savagery was what allowed him to impart that distinctive top-spin, especially to his groundstrokes. When he reached out – sometimes for impossibly wide returns – with that remarkable gorilla-left arm, and fired a backhand or forehand, he despatched it with such vicious vigour that a spectator would’ve been forgiven for expecting the ball to drop only when it disappeared over the horizon.

But, instead, it would describe a rapid downward arc that was like some kind of racy new signature for the game of tennis. Sheer brilliance of timing allowed him to hit a ball high over the net, yet, spinning briskly in the same direction it was travelling, it would promptly drop into the opponent’s court with less margin for error than a flatly-hit stroke, and hit the ground running. It was a language no one had heard before. It was exciting and baffled one opponent after another.

There is no comparison to the modern game. The modern game is not the same game. Today’s players don’t play with the same instrument and their playing surfaces are entirely different. Today, there are great players, and then there’s a population of boringly homogenous service and back-court-obsessed mediocrities. Yet, as time goes on, Laver’s legacy seems to be questioned according to the modern context.

There are many ways to measure greatness, and statistics don’t do it all. Great tennis players, under the old dispensation, might not have survived today’s game. But Laver played the game of tennis at a time when dinosaurs of that game walked the Earth: Gonzales, Fraser, Seixas, Smith, Rosewall, Hoad, Emerson, Newcombe, Roche, Ashe. Sampras might have had his Agassi and his Courier, Federer his Nadal, but one mighty challenger after another gave Rocket many colossal battles, and head-to-head, he headed them all.

Laver won Wimbledon in 1961 and 1962, was banned during the “professional” era, and when he was reinstated, immediately won Wimbledon again in 1968-9, and looked as superior as he had all those years before. Who knows what untouchable records the man might’ve set had he played Establishment tennis the whole time?

He won 11 grand slam titles, including twice winning all grand slam singles titles in the same year. Australia never lost a Davis Cup rubber with Laver in it, and won five altogether. His Davis Cup record in singles and doubles was 20 wins, four losses. His win-loss ratio in the Open era was 392-99.

His legacy? Laver is our tennis Bradman. An undisputed superstar, and to many, the greatest ever. The heavy-hitting top-spin kings of the 1970s, such as Guillermo Vilas and Bjorn Borg, all owe their success to the Rocket. That top-spin groundstroke became stock standard for any aspiring champion after Laver showed the world how it was done.

His genius? That was unrepeatable.

– Robert Drane