The other day in New York, I went to see The God of Tennis.
But first, I needed to ask The God of Tennis about the demise of the…San Diego Chargers.
“Disappointing,” Rod Laver said. “It didn’t have to happen. [Chargers owner Alex] Spanos was not interested in making a deal, I think.”
You may or may not know that Rod Laver—a/k/a Rod the God, a/k/a Rocket, the only man to win tennis’s four Grand Slam majors in one calendar year two times—was a longtime Chargers season ticket holder, a regular at Bolts tailgates outside the stadium.
Laver has kept a home for decades in the Carlsbad, Calif., area, and the Australian left-handed legend got into North American Football when his daughter brought him to a spicy Chargers contest versus their rival Raiders.
“It was one of those things where it was fun, but at the same time, I was like, ‘This is going to be dangerous,’” he said, laughing.
Was Laver done with the Chargers, now that the team skipped north to Los Angeles?
“I don’t know if I’ll go up there,” he admitted. “But I’ll watch some of the games.”
OK, enough about that melancholy football outfit. Let’s move on to Laver and tennis.
Tennis is about to have an overdue Rod-enassiance. A couple weeks after the U.S. Open finishes, on will come the Laver Cup, the first edition of an all-star men’s tennis event designed to replicate golf’s successful Ryder Cup. Team Europe will be pitted against Team World in a three-day event that will take place in Prague from Sept. 22 to 24.
I caught up with Laver after a late August press conference in New York attended by inaugural Cup player
as well as
who will serve as the coach for Team World.
The Laver Cup is the work of Federer and his management group, Team8. Federer worships Laver—he’s repeatedly called him the game’s greatest of all time—and wanted to create an event that would honor Laver and add a fun dimension to the end of the tennis season. After Prague, the Cup will move to the U.S. for 2018; the host hasn’t been named officially, but it has come down to either Boston or Chicago.
For 2017, Team Europe is stacked, with Federer,
Team World, meanwhile, is a little, ah, less than stacked:
Juan Martin del Potro
and the Canadian breakout
It’s Laver and Goliath!
The revived Nadal and Federer give the first Cup a loud buzz. A year ago, I’d been in a hotel ballroom in Manhattan when Laver, Fed and Rafa made the initial Cup announcement. Federer had already pulled out of the remainder of the 2016 calendar, his tennis future uncertain. Nadal had bailed out of the French Open that summer with a wrist injury and missed Wimbledon as well.
Now, the two tennis geezers are sizzling again. At the moment, the 31-year-old Nadal is the current world No. 1, and Federer, 36, sits at No. 3 after stunning Slam victories in Australia and Wimbledon.
“It’s such an amazing situation, especially on Roger’s side,” Laver said. “At 36, to be as competitive as he is? I don’t care how old you are, it’s hard to get yourself up and the adrenaline going.”
I asked Laver what was the one thing about today’s game that he’d have wanted in his prime. Money is the easy answer, of course—today’s Slam champions get a check worth millions, whereas I’ve heard Laver talk about getting a handshake and a gift certificate to the gift shop for winning Wimbledon. There’s also the equipment, the sponsors, the watches, the cars, the private jets…
“I think the physios,” Laver said, referring to the trainers and masseuses who often accompany the best players. “You’re playing hurt a lot, and your legs and everything hurts. You never really get over a bad situation where you’ve played four hours or something and you just feel like, ‘I wish I could have a break.’”
What did you do for recovery in your day? I asked.
“Sit in the Jacuzzi,” Laver said. “Sometimes that was the only outlet—go sit in the Jacuzzi.”
Did you ice your joints or anything like that?
“Yeah, I did that. I had my share of tennis elbows, just like [Novak] Djokovic’s having now. I know what he’s going through.
“One story: when I went through Europe, before I turned pro in ‘69, I had to get a big pot and a thing called a hydrocollator pad. I’d boil it and get it as hot as I could, and then go to sleep with it on. That was the only thing that saved me. The moist, wet heat.”
I’m glad modern tennis is getting behind Laver. Sometimes the sport acts as if the men’s game began when McEnroe and Borg wandered onto center court with their fabulous hair. There are too many people today who think
is a sneaker, not a player who changed the pro game.
Laver’s an absolute titan. I mean, just talk to Federer and McEnroe. I asked both men: if you could get into a time capsule and play Laver in his prime, how would you play him?
“I’m not sure staying at the baseline would be the right place,” Federer said. “I’d have to adjust my play, quite honestly—be a little out of my comfort zone, serve and volley on first and second serve. That’s where Rocket would be better, because that’s how he played. We’d probably be playing on grass, which is good for me, but the grass back then was different—the baseline grass wouldn’t have been easy. It would have been difficult, and we all know Rod was one of the greatest volleyers to ever play. When you watch the videos, there’s [still] so much to learn from him.”
McEnroe, who called Laver “the first guy who was capable of hitting any shot, anywhere” was characteristically blunt:
“I don’t have any chance,” Johnny Mac said.
Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com