MELBOURNE, Australia — In the middle of the 1960s, before tennis entered the modern era, Rod Laver and the other top tennis players in the world had to barnstorm the globe hunting for paychecks, playing tennis matches everywhere from La Paz to Nairobi, like jazz musicians bouncing from gig to gig.
Envious of the riches that the golf stars Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were accumulating, Laver wrote to their agent, Mark McCormack, the founder of the sports and entertainment conglomerate IMG, and asked for help.
“He didn’t think that tennis was big enough back in those years. He said he couldn’t do anything for me,” Laver said Friday afternoon. “I wrote back again two or three years later. He finally said ‘yes.’”
By then, tennis was beginning its evolution from a largely amateur pursuit in which professionals could not play the biggest tournaments into the posh international spectacle it is today, with its biggest stars making tens of millions of dollars a year.
A half-century ago, there was no bigger star than Laver, who won 11 Grand Slam singles titles and who remains the last man to win the four biggest tournaments in the sport in a single calendar year.
The 2023 Australian Open
The year’s first Grand Slam event runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29 in Melbourne.
- No Spotlight, No Problem: In tennis, there is a long history of success and exposure crushing champions or sucking the joy out of them. In this Australian Open, players under the radar have gone far.
- Behind the Scenes: A coterie of billionaires, deep-pocketed companies and star players has engaged for months in a high-stakes battle to lead what they view as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to disrupt the sport.
- Endless Games: As matches stretch into the early-morning hours, players have grown concerned for their health and performance.
Now 84 and living in California, Laver remains a king of the sport, a slight, diminutive redhead-gone-gray with a magical left arm.
He spoke with The New York Times on Friday afternoon at a restaurant in the arena that bears his name in Melbourne Park.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You played in a lot of places that bear little resemblance to an immaculate facility like Rod Laver Arena. Do you think about that, playing in La Paz, Bolivia, at 12,000 feet in a glorified gymnasium, as you watch the players compete in this grand stadium named for you?
Well, in La Paz, you’re so high and we were using regular balls. I was playing with Fred Stolle and Butch Buchholz and Roy Emerson, and we decided we had to puncture the balls because they were flying all over the place. We put a little hole in them so we were playing flat-ball tennis. At least the people who came then didn’t think we were animals.
I was in Nairobi once, and it was raining a lot, and someone got the idea to pour gas on the court and light it on fire to dry it out. There was black smoke everywhere. We probably were not very popular.
How do you compare the highest level of the sport when you were playing to the highest level today?
It’s a totally different world. I think our tennis was very good. But we were playing with small wooden rackets. Today’s players have a bigger-headed racket. They’re taller guys. They’re great athletes.
Would you have liked to have competed with the modern technology?
It would be nice. I did enjoy playing with the Dunlop racket. I think I played some damn good tennis with that racket.
If you had the modern racket, can you imagine how you might have played Novak Djokovic?
I think I might have hurt somebody. My left arm is like twice the size. I may not be able to get the ball in the court, but I can get a lot of speed up. I’d have to spin the ball to bring it down.
Do you see any part of yourself in Djokovic in the way he approaches and dominates the sport?
No. Two different games. I used what I learned from my coach back when I was 14. He said, “You lefties have the worst chip backhands; you’ll never win Wimbledon. You’ve got to learn to hit a topspin backhand.” I was hitting into the cheap seats for quite some time. Finally, I got a little more control, and bit by bit I found that that was my best shot.
So do you think you could compete with today’s best?
I think I could be competitive, but today’s players, they’re different. Everything is different. Emerson and I would be playing doubles on clay together, and we would come into the dressing room and kick our shoes off and just walk into the shower. There was red dirt all over you, and that was how we would wash out clothes. We would then hang them up, and they would be dry for us to play in the next day. When you were flying in those days, sometimes you could only have 20 kilos of clothes on the plane with you, and I’m on the road all year.
You ended up playing until you were fairly old for a tennis player back then.
My last match I was 38. In one tournament when I was getting on I had gotten to the last eight, and I had to play Bjorn Borg. I remember telling him, because we were good friends, I said, “You’re going to beat me, but you’re going to know that you played me.”
What was the key to being able to play at such a high level until you were nearly 40?
It’s your attitude and also the way you play. Did you wear out your body? I didn’t ever have problems. You always have some sort of trouble with your shoulders, your ankles. But if you look after yourself, you can. We also didn’t have as many great, great players. We had a few. If we got to the semis or a final, you would play them.
The way the game is now, there are so many of them. All the Europeans who are competing, we didn’t have nearly as many when we played.