Tennis was a big part of my life from as far back as I can remember. What else was a kid to do? Growing up in those years when my family and I were moving around rural Queensland, I can’t remember a house, backyard or paddock that wasn’t littered with tennis racquets and tennis balls . . . along with, of course, footballs, cricket bats and six stitchers. And it wasn’t just me. If you lived in Australia in the ’40s and ’50s, those golden, more innocent times before the public tennis courts that were ubiquitous on Australia’s rural and suburban blocks were banished by houses, flats, offices, parking lots, factories and shopping malls, tennis was what you played. It was every bit as much a national pastime as cricket, footy and swimming. A tennis racquet was as prevalent in a boy’s life then as PlayStations, iPods and mobile phones are today. That being so, and with tennis-mad parents, brothers, in-laws and mates like mine, I had little choice but to play the game.
I was born on 9 August 1938, just one month before the American Donald Budge won the first ever tennis Grand Slam, in Rockhampton’s Tannachy Hospital, the third child of Melba (named after Dame Nellie, naturally) and Roy Laver. My brother Trevor was six years older and Bob had four years on me. Sister Lois arrived nine years after I came along. Dad was a cattleman, a loving, caring father but, like most bushies, a tough, hard bloke who treated his own farm injuries (mainly because there was no hospital handy). Home for us was Langdale, a 9300-hectare cattle property an hour’s drive from the town of Marlborough, which is 96 kilometres north of Rocky. My father, who was raised in Gippsland, Victoria, was one of 13 kids, eight of them boys, so the Laver brothers were able to field the best part of a cricket or football team and four tennis doubles teams in local comps. My mother also hailed from a sporting family, the Roffeys. Mum’s mother, Alice Roffey, rode horses until she passed away at age 90.
Queenslanders have always been tough, self-reliant people, but, apart from the heat, tropical rain and those beautiful old wide-verandah Queenslander homes, rural Queensland in the 1940s would be all but unrecognisable to anyone who has known it only in modern times. Most roads were unsealed, and I remember kangaroos bounding along- side the family car as we travelled the long distances from town to town, farm to farm. When I was a boy, with World War II being waged, the federal government introduced measures to aid the war effort. There were blackouts and brownouts in the cities and larger towns to deter Japanese air raids, food was rationed and fun was too, with sporting events confined to weekends. Mum and Dad had to carry personal ID cards. There were fewer blokes about because many were serving overseas. Short back and sides was the hairstyle of choice for Queensland men, the vast majority of whom smoked rollies and wore wide-brimmed felt hats and suit coats in a heatwave.
There was no TV back then, so radio was the main source of entertainment and war news. The newsreel that was screened before the cartoons and the double movie bill at the local picture theatre was another way of keeping up to date with how we were faring against the Germans and Japanese. Churches on Sundays were full to brimming. After church, people gathered in the church hall to devour sandwiches and tea and talk about the weather and its effect on crops, after which it was home for a Sunday roast with family and friends, no matter how hot the day. Eating out on a Sunday was impossible for the simple reason that pubs and cafes were not allowed to open on the Sabbath. Other days, when restaurants were open, proprietors insisted that male patrons wear a collar and tie. Lew Hoad told me how difficult it was to dine out when he was a young player travelling the rural Queensland tournament circuit. He said he was routinely abused and denied entry by restaurant staff if he entered dressed casually. Dressing to the nines can be a challenge when you’re living out of a suitcase.
When I was a toddler, Dad’s favourite sport was tennis and he was determined that it become ours. To this end my brothers carted great quantities of ant bed – you knock over an ant hill and crush the pebbles into smooth, hard grit, which plays a little like fast clay – and loam, laid it in the yard, surrounded it with a wire perimeter fence, erected a net, scratched out some markings . . . and we had our own tennis court. We rolled and watered it every day to stop it from cracking, or being washed or blown into the next paddock by rain or wind. That upkeep was a small price to pay given the fun we had on that ant-bed court. There was no quarter given or asked when I got a little older and played against my brothers, or against my parents for that matter, and making it even more interesting was that the court’s bounce was anything but true so you had no clue where the ball was going to go. Centre court at Wimbledon it was not.
What with tennis on our makeshift court, backyard cricket in wide, grassy paddocks and doing my lessons – reluctantly, I have to admit – by correspondence, life was idyllic on the property for the Laver boys, little blokes with sun hats, T-shirts, shorts and no shoes. With my flaming hair, sticking-out ears and 49,000 freckles, I’m told I was the spitting image of Ginger Meggs in the Sunday newspaper comics. We hunted kangaroos and rode horses, playing at being cowboys. That Langdale paddock became the endless plains of the wild west, even though horses and I got off to an unfortunate start. When I was two, Dad lifted me up into the saddle of one of our horses and led it across the paddock but somewhere along the way I fell off without my father realising and when he reached the stable and saw the empty saddle he hightailed it back to retrieve me.
Life was everything a boy could wish for, so we were not pleased when Dad, who wasn’t the only one finding it tough to make ends meet on the land, took us off the property and relocated us all to a house in the backblocks of Marlborough, where he’d found work as a butcher. Trevor, Bob and I attended the tiny local school where I excelled at tennis against my school mates – though unlike my tennis pals, schoolwork got the better of me.
When I was 10, we moved again, to Rockhampton, because Dad, now in his 50s, could make more money butchering in a bigger town. Besides, he and Mum believed my brothers and I would receive a better education at Rockhampton Grammar School than at Marlborough. And, even more importantly, there was a well-organised tennis competition at the Rockhampton Association courts, where my parents played mixed doubles, and my brothers and I singles and doubles. It was about then that I realised I had a better-than-ordinary talent to follow and strike a tennis ball, and being naturally left-handed probably helped me too because lefties were in the minority so I was awkward for others to play against.
We lived on Lakes Creek Road for a while and then moved to a Queenslander in Main Street Park Avenue. I’m told I had a thing for climbing up onto the roof of our house and sitting there, only coming down when I got hungry. I was at Rocky Grammar for three years and then finished my primary education at Park Avenue School near our home before following Trevor and Bob to Rockhampton High School, which they left after completing the first two years. Trev then worked in our cousin Len Laver’s sports store and Bob, much to everyone’s envy, got a job at Paul’s Ice Cream Works.
Right through school, I was a handy cricketer, a batsman and a left-arm spinner who bowled leg breaks. One after- noon when I was 11, I came home after playing cricket for my school and when Trevor asked me how I’d fared I said, ‘Oh, okay, I guess, I took nine wickets for seven runs.’ I wasn’t being modest, it was just no big deal for me. I don’t think I even realised these were amazing figures. As far as I was concerned I’d just had a good day and a whole lot of fun.
I was a keen fisherman, sitting for hours on the banks of the Fitzroy River and often returning home in the gathering dusk with a sugar bag filled with fish for dinner. I hear that fishing is one of the most dangerous of pastimes and it certainly proved hazardous for me when, after netting barramundi in the Fitzroy, I suffered a mishap that easily could have ruined my tennis career. I was absent-mindedly digging my fish-cleaning knife into the sand when it hit a rock and somehow the blade sliced into my left hand, my racquet hand, and severed the tendon in my little finger. Another centimetre or two and it could have cut off my fingers or slashed the arteries in my wrist. The cut bled heavily. I staunched the flow by wrapping my hand in my T-shirt and ran home. We lived too far from the hospital to have the cut stitched and the wound, though a nasty one, healed itself in time. To this day I have no feeling in that finger. Playing tennis, I had to alter my racquet grip to compensate for the injury, and my fingers, which forever after would stick stiffly out, were always catching on the left-hand side pocket of my shorts. In the end, Mum sewed up my pocket.
In many respects life today is better for children, but I reckon in some ways we had it very good. Surely playing games in the open air and swimming and fishing for barramundi in Moore Creek and the waterhole at Park Avenue Powerhouse is better than going cross-eyed in front of a computer game screen or living life vicariously watching TV. We had our movies, but even a night at the flicks was an adventure for us in those long-ago country Queensland days. In Rockhampton there was an outdoor theatre . . . just a big canvas screen set up in a vacant lot with rows of folding chairs in front of it (though you could sit on the grass if you wanted) and a projector that shone its magical rays through hordes of bugs and summer moths up onto the canvas rectangle. Somehow, in my memory, it was always John Wayne rounding up the baddies on that screen, and rain, hail or moonlight we wouldn’t leave until the big fella had brought the last black-hatted desperado to justice. Even today, 60 years on and with the Duke long a resident of Boot Hill, I’m one of his biggest fans and will happily watch a western any day of the week. When I was touring on the pro circuit with Alex Olmedo, it bothered him that the Indians always got it in the neck in the westerns we watched at the movies or on the hotel room TV. So Alex, who was an Inca Indian from Peru whose nickname was ‘The Chief’, would wait until the Indians were winning, usually in the very early part of the movie, and then he’d up and leave before they inevitably bit the dust in the final reel. ‘I know we Indians will lose in the end, so I’m getting out of here while we’re still ahead,’ he’d say.
When Dad was looking for a place for us to live, one of his requirements was that the yard must have sufficient room for us to lay another homemade tennis court. At the Main Street Park Avenue house we were able to clear the scrub and Dad, Bob, Trev and I carted the soil and silt in his truck from the Fitzroy River and laid the court in the clearing. The good thing about silt, apart from being a good playing surface, is that when it dries and it’s windy the sand is blown off but when you water it again, more sand rises and holds it all together.
This time, we fitted out our home court for night play by stringing four 1500-watt light bulbs on an overhead wire down the centre of the court. Any of us kids who broke a bulb with a lob or smash was in for it. Those lights were dim, so consequently our eyes grew sharp trying to see the ball in the gloom and the ability I acquired to see the ball clearly and early stood me in good stead right through my career. The Lavers’ court was a magnet for local tennis players and was in constant use, as we played against each other and all-comers from kilometres around. One fellow who extended us was the young future champion Mal Anderson. Both my brothers were excellent players. Trevor was possibly the better, but Bob was no slouch and would grow up to be a tennis coach. One thing about Trev, though: when he played his emotions bubbled to the surface. If he was struggling in a match, everyone knew about it. He grumbled and griped and his shoulders sagged. I enjoyed playing against him when he was angry, because his mind wasn’t on the match. It occurred to me that it would benefit me to play without emotion – well, without emotion that others could see, anyway. Card players profited from having a poker face so opponents wouldn’t know how good or bad their hand was, and I figured a deadpan expression would work in tennis, too.
I was always happy when one of my brothers came home from school before the other, because then he’d be forced to have a hit-up with me. As soon as my other brother arrived, I’d be booted off the court so they could play each other. ‘Scram, kid,’ they’d say. One solution was to find Mum and she’d team with me to play Trevor and Bob in doubles. If she couldn’t, I’d occupy myself hitting against a wall, studying what a ball did on impact after I’d connected with a particular shot: would it shoot forward, spin back towards me or to the side, bounce high or drop dead? I also hit along a grass cricket pitch. One day Dad came home with the wood to build a back wall. My job was to screw the wooden panels onto a wooden frame. I did it wrong and assembled the panels vertically instead of horizontally, which meant that the panels warped. Happily, there was an up-side. When I hit a tennis ball against the wonky wall, the ball came back at me any which way and I had to be in position to return it. All of this helped my reflexes, anticipation and my footwork enormously.
I loved tennis. It seemed the natural game for me to play. I played in the rain and the wind, and under the blistering Queensland sun, which would soon cause my floppy sun hat to become saturated with sweat. To counter that, on very hot days I occasionally placed wet cabbage leaves inside my hat to keep my head wet and cool. Over the years, some media profiles of me have made out that I never left home without my hat filled with cabbage leaves. Nice story, but not true.
What I loved was the satisfaction of hitting the ball sweetly, the running to ram home a point or save one, the one-on-one combative nature of the game, facing up to an opponent and testing yourself against him. I think only boxing is as confrontational. There is a kinship between the two sports. You have two people facing each other in a contained space, probing for weakness and attacking it. Tennis players and boxers need footwork, timing and stamina.
Excerpted from Rod Laver: A Memoir by Rod Laver. Copyright © 2013 by Rod Laver.
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