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Good Weekend Rod Laver gets back into the swing of life Credit:Photograph by Shaughn and John. Normal text size Larger text size Very large text size Rod Laver is watching me.
Staring right at me, in fact. Studying my stance and gauging my grip. Checking out my waggle. Waiting for me to hit the first golf ball of the morning. And I am petrified. I have only myself to blame, of course. I negotiated the creation of this moment. How about we actually do something for our interview, I asked his manager, instead of chatting in an office?
And I should be giddy that my plan has come to pass. The warm breeze on the American west coast is perfumed with sage and buckwheat. The sunshine is burnishing every coppery ridge and mesa in the coastal desert north of San Diego.
And the sky, well, the sky is that wondrous geo-specific hue of Pacific Ocean azure and misty heat haze that might as well be its own trademarked Pantone.
Call it Southern California Blue. Only my rusty swing, performed at a driving range in front of a designated National Living Treasure — a man with a statue, a stadium and an international tennis tournament named after him — could spoil this moment.
Wait, wider still. Our heads swivel silently in sync, together tracking the uncooperative Titleist as it drifts to the right, a vicious skyward slice soaring over the boundary netting of the driving range and onto the aluminium roof of a faraway outbuilding, where it crashes.
With my dignity. Laver looks at his feet, and I at mine. He flashes a grin: "You're gonna kill someone. Over three hours together, we enjoy a drive around his posh hilly neighbourhood in suburban Carlsbad, lunch at a sandwich shop in a strip mall, and kick back for a nice rest in the shade of his backyard.
We cover the bones of the biography that built a tennis champion — probably the greatest of all time more on that later — but more importantly, we discuss what's been happening in his life lately. That last part is crucial because Laver, now 80, has become one of those mythic figures in the global sporting firmament.
It turns out, however, that his avoidance of the spotlight owes precious little to country-boy shyness or the magnanimous modesty of a champ, and instead to a long and painful run of grave personal misfortune.
Twenty years ago, you see, Laver suffered a serious stroke — one that all but killed him. Upon emerging from rehabilitation, his wife Mary fell ill with an array of her own crippling, cruel ailments, meaning their two traumas virtually overlapped, Laver doting on her every need for almost a decade before she died in All of which means he stayed mostly within mournful shadow for around 15 years until, slowly, he began inching back into the light of public life.
You might have seen him at an event or two recently — the standing ovations are hard to miss. What you are witnessing is a genial old man wading into a reverent sea of adoration he did not fully know existed, one that will continue washing warmly over him through , the golden anniversary of his defining achievement in tennis, the year he became the only person in history to complete two Grand Slams winning all four major tournaments — the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open — in a calendar year.
Popping up in the front row at Melbourne Park these past few years, he's almost become the silent face of the tournament — the one who reminds Australia of its history in the game — but it's easy to forget such visits home were once infrequent.
Well, at least we like to think so… Ball games were always very fun to me even from the early age of 7 when I started playing table tennis.
Remember the Australian Open? He presented the trophy to a weeping Roger Federer, who rested his snuffly nose and red eyes on Laver's shoulder, a moment that became instantly iconic.
Few people understood that such trips were never more than a few days long. He studies and loves the game. Arthritis in his left wrist keeps him from playing his chosen sport these days, and so back on the driving range, between swings of his trusty eight iron, Laver flicks through his iPhone, showing me exactly what fun an octogenarian gent can have by diving back into life.
Brekkie with Novak Djokovic.
At the keyboard, in the hot seat, answering asklaver questions on Twitter. Sipping a pint from a big glass stein with a frosted message: Cheers and beers to 80 years! Advertisement Visiting the Pantheon in Rome, then walking all four kilometres to the Colosseum.
Eating deep-dish pizza with Nick Kyrgios. Shaking hands with Joe Hockey in Washington, DC, at the dedication of a new grass court for his ambassadorial residence. Meeting David Beckham. And Bear Grylls. And Bill Gates.
That was a slice of for Rod Laver. What did you do with your year? Rod Laver at home in California. Credit:Shaughn and John The man is in the midst of not only touring the world but also cultivating a host of commercial partnerships including ambassadorial roles with Rolex, ANZ and Dunlop while nurturing the nascent Laver Cup tennis tournament a new concept which, a little like the Ryder Cup in golf, pits an annually selected Team Europe against Team World.
Oh, and there's one other important development worth sharing: "The Rocket" has a girlfriend, with whom he's smitten, and who is in Melbourne for the first time now, joining him for the Australian Open. He comes here by himself occasionally, always ordering roast beef on a hoagie roll, with a bowl of jus for dipping.
It happened in , in a suite at the Westwood Marquis hotel, not far from Hollywood. He was just shy of 60, and doing an interview for ESPN.
He was very much with it. Rockhampton, he answered, a hot place: "That's where the crows fly backwards just to keep the dust out of their eyes. His right hand and fingers grew cold. His right arm tingled with pins and needles. His answers grew garbled. Odd words would pop into a sentence where they didn't belong.
He also asked his cameraman — surreptitiously, so as not to alarm Laver — to go downstairs and call for an ambulance.
Laver went into a dizzy spin. He swayed a moment, then fell while vomiting violently. Oxygen is what you need in such situations, and so Laver was lucky for the intervention of the crew, and the fact that the prestigious UCLA Medical Center was nearby. The doctors there asked him his name, which he slurred.