Laver Won't Get Caught Up in Debate Over Greatest Ever

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 2009

WIMBLEDON, England, July 5 -- He dominated tennis in the era of small wooden rackets, when it took three days to travel from England to Australia, and players had to scurry around between points picking up stray balls themselves because the concept of ball boys didn't exist.

But on Sunday, Rod Laver returned to Wimbledon.

At 70 and clad in suit and tie, the Rocket wasn't physically imposing.

Then again, he never was.

Brawn had little to do with the command Laver had over tennis when he held the No. 1 spot for seven years running in the 1960s.

But he remains a towering figure, particularly at the All England club, where he won Wimbledon titles in 1961, 1962, 1968 and 1969. And before taking his seat in the Royal Box for Sunday's men's final, the great man displayed uncommon grace in fielding questions from reporters about the game's past and present.

Many were too young to remember Laver in his prime. All but one was too young to remember Bill Tilden at all.

Both names, Laver and Tilden, have long been bandied about in the debate over who is the greatest to play the game. And a third -- that of Roger Federer -- was listed alongside even before Sunday, when Federer raised the mark for excellence by winning a record 15th major title.

Laver has studied Federer for years now and came away with profound admiration for his talent and comportment alike.

"Just watch Roger and not the ball, and you'll see how great a player he is to pull off some of the shots," Laver said. "When he's half-volleying winners off the baseline, you just marvel at his ability to do that."

But Laver sees little value in the conversation sportswriters persist in having over who is the greatest.

"I've always thought that you're the best in your era," Laver said. "That, to me, is a pretty good compliment. It's hard for anyone, I think, to come out and say who's the best ever. It's like boxing. Who's the best ever in boxing?"

It's doubtful any player will equal, much less surpass, Federer's 15 major titles. But it's even less plausible Federer will match Laver's greatest achievement -- winning all four majors in a calendar year, not just once but twice (as an amateur in 1962; a pro in 1969).

Still, Laver's essential achievement can't be conveyed by statistics. He remade the game, inventing shots that didn't exist before he picked up a racket.

Much of his genius resided in his thick left wrist, which played the ball like a virtuoso -- rendering artful slices, drop shots, volleys and topspin lobs in a sport that previously revolved around flat forehands and backhands.

But the game Laver played bears no relation to today's, Laver noted without passing judgment on past or present.

"When kids start off at age 8 with this composite racquet, they've got spin and control within a couple of years," Laver said. "My coach, Charlie Hollis, said it's going to take you two years to perfect a forehand, two years for a backhand, two years for a serve. . . . But today the players can perfect all this in six months. You've got players now that are just coming out of the woodwork and winning and getting to semifinals and finals. How is this? But that's the way the game is being played today."

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