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Steve Flink: Conversation with Rod Laver

10/16/2007 5:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The man many in the cognoscenti consider the best ever to play the game of tennis is 69 now, but he is not living in the past. His enthusiasm about the sport he once ruled so majestically is undiminished. His curiosity about today's world of tennis is unmistakable, and his views on the state of the game are conveyed with intelligence and conviction. Rod Laver is still Rod Laver, the same fundamentally decent fellow he always has been, proud and immensely dignified, statesmanlike and unassuming, someone who knows precisely who he is and what he has brought to the sporting landscape.

I first watched Laver perform his unique blend of magic in 1966. I have known him since 1974. Late last week, I felt it was time to touch base with the only player ever to record two Grand Slams (1962 and 1969), to talk tennis with him and gain his insights on a variety of topics. I wanted to tap into his vast reservoir of knowledge. And so, late last week, I picked up the phone, dialed Laver's number at his California home, and hoped he would be there to answer my questions. Fortunately, he was graciously willing to expansively address all of my queries.

The logical starting point for our conversation was the upcoming three-match, late November exhibition series between Roger Federer and Pete Sampras, followed by their American duel at New York's fabled Madison Square Garden in March. Does he believe it is worth it for the former world champion Sampras at 36 to compete against the 26-year-old the current No. 1 player in the world? After all, Federer is in his prime while Sampras, despite three 2007 tournament triumphs on the Jim Courier [senior] Champions Tour, is well past his best playing days.

"Fitness will not be the problem for Pete," responds Laver. "It is match play that he might have trouble with. But, at 36, he is still capable of playing good tennis. And you only have got a few chances [at that age] of playing your best before you get a little bit too old, and then say, 'I wish I had done that.' Pete still enjoys the game so much and he is very competitive so why not play Roger in this series? I imagine it will be televised, won't it?  I would like to see it. Editors note: All three Federer vs Sampras matches will be televised live on Tennis Channel and replayed in their entirety online in December.  Roger has crept up the ladder and is certainly challenging Pete's position as the best player of this modern era. I just think that both Roger and Pete enjoy the competition. I don't think this is about the dollars."

I asked Laver if he feels that Sampras matches up well against Federer because of his relentless, serve-and-volley, attacking style. Will that put the American in good stead against the Swiss stylist? " For me," replies Rod, " I think Pete does match up well with Roger because the only thing that Roger does not see and doesn't play against now is someone that is barreling in all the time, making big serves and coming in behind them. All Roger has done in the past against someone like Andy Roddick is to roll the returns back deep and then the point starts all over again. And if he does that against Pete, Pete is going to have lunch up there at the net. But if Roger can dip the ball low he will have the advantage. Pete could be in trouble if Roger is making those passing shots and lobs with Pete at the net not knowing where to go."

So what will happen? Who has the edge? "You tend to favor Roger but if he gives Pete the opportunity to get into his own game it could make for some interesting matches. Roger has got so many shots whereas Pete has that weakness--- if you can call it a weakness--- on his backhand. And Pete has that steady power on the forehand that loosens up the point for him to crack some winners. But, the thing is, Pete has got to crack those winners when he has the chances; he can't go missing them. That is where the match play becomes important."

Does Laver see a parallel between the Federer-Sampras exhibition series and his 'Winner Take All" Las Vegas showdown with Jimmy Connors in 1975? In that case, Laver was 36 and well past his prime while Connors was 22 and on top of the world. Connors won 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5 as Laver got progressively better across the last two scintillating sets. "I guess that was a little bit similar," Laver says. "I remember losing a couple of matches in tournaments leading up to my match with Connors. I really needed more match play to be ready for what Jimmy would throw at me. And the other thing that seems to happen as you get older is you can be playing beautifully one day and the next day you are thinking, 'Where the hell is my game?' For no reason whatsoever you find that your game is gone. You wonder how many times you can keep getting up for matches."

What if Federer and Sampras were placed in a time capsule, with both men in their mid-twenties, each simultaneously at their zenith? What happens then? Laver answers, "It would surely have been close and it is hard for me to pick either because they both played so well under big match competition. It brings out the best in both Roger and Pete. Look at all the Wimbledon finals they have played without losing. They both seem to play their best tennis at the most important times. They both have offensive games when needed and when they need to play it safe they can do that. It is such a hard call to make. If one of them got the edge on the other and won the first set, it is still hard to say that he would go on to win the match. I really can't pick a winner."

Laver has analyzed the Federer-Sampras situation with typical skill and clarity. Now he turns his attention to other players. He is highly intrigued by the rising stock of Novak Djokovic. "Djokovic is for real, "he asserts. " He plays well under pressure and he seems to have all the shots. He volleys well and he has got a good serve, which is such an important factor today in tennis. You keep someone on their heels a little bit because of a big serve. Djokovic has such ability. He and Rafael Nadal certainly are going to be No.2 and No. 3 through next year. Djokovic has the ability to play against someone like Federer because he is not impressed and doesn't worry about Federer's game. He just worries about his own game. And if he is hitting the ball well as he so often does that puts a lot of pressure on someone like Federer. It will be an interesting year coming up. There is a whole group of people who now have got experience, and someone like Nalbandian comes to mind after his win over Roger [in Madrid]. You have got some class horses out there."

What is in store for Andy Murray? "He is good," says Laver, "but I don't know about his attitude, which is a little suspect in my mind. The way he plays it can look like he is not trying half the time. And you think, 'Is that true or is that just putting off an opponent?' I saw him play at Indian Wells this year and he was screaming at his coach Brad Gilbert and I wondered what can be going on in his head if he is saying these things and not playing his best tennis? You are not working on your game if you are busy complaining to someone in the stands, but I know he has some very good ability."

We have covered a fair amount of ground. I realize it is time to let Laver go. But before he hangs up, I ask him about his plans for 2008. Will he be at any of the majors? "I hope to be at Wimbledon," he says. "It is the 40th Anniversary of my winning the first Open event there in 1968. Tim Phillips has invited me back and if my wife Mary is in good shape I will go over there for a few days. I would enjoy that."

Rod Laver is unfailingly modest, exceedingly humble in light of his large and surpassing achievements. As we conclude the interview, I ask him how he feels about always being mentioned in the same breath with Federer and Sampras whenever the subject of the game's greatest ever player comes up. True to character, he says, "I am certainly honored and flattered that people feel that way. You look back on your career and know that you gave the best you had all the time and realize you got fortunate and won the right tournaments at the right time. It is a great feeling for me to be linked with Pete and Roger. Today's game is totally different so I can't even envision myself playing the shots that Roger is playing. It is uncanny how many lines he hits and it is such a great thing to see so I don't see myself in today's category, but only in the past."

The rest of us beg to differ.

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