The lasting legacy of Australia’s tennis greats revealed
YOUNG Rod Laver's white T-shirt is soaked with sweat and his florid face is almost the same hue as his red hair.
The 21-year-old tennis prospect has the stamina of an Olympic distance runner but here on the grass at Brisbane's Milton courts, the Rockhampton "Rocket" is running low on fuel against the much more experienced Melbourne ace Neale Fraser.
It's a gruelling battle of left-handers on February 1, 1960, as Fraser, the US men's singles champion, leads Laver two sets to love in the best of five for the Australian men's title.
Many of the sport's biggest names have deserted the established tournaments for a new professional circuit but in 1960 Queensland is a tennis powerhouse, and 8000 people are in the Milton stands to watch Laver against the No. 1 amateur in the world.
Laver began playing tennis on a court he and his brothers made from silt that they gouged from the mouth of the Fitzroy River, but early in this match it looks like he's in over his head as Fraser, chasing his first Australian title after twice finishing runner-up, races to a commanding lead. Laver fights back hard, though, to take the third set and then survives match point in the fourth to win a marathon five-setter.
"A lot of people thought it was the most exciting match they'd ever seen," the now 80-year-old Laver says ahead of the Australian Open finals this weekend at Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena, the cavernous tennis stadium named in his honour.
"Of all the big matches I won around the world, I consider that 1960 victory in Brisbane the most satisfying of my career. It proved that despite a humble start in the game, I had the talent and the drive to compete and beat the biggest names in the sport. It was the win that really set up my future.''
Laver earned just a £15 sports store voucher for that 1960 win in a staggering contrast to this year's event in which both the men's and women's winners of the Australian Open will receive $4.1 million each.
While his earnings never reached those of today's champions, Laver stands alone in tennis history for twice winning the tennis Grand Slam - taking the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US singles titles in a single year - in both 1962 as an amateur and in 1969 as a professional.
Last November, Laver was named by The Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail as Queensland's greatest ever sports star ahead of golf's Greg Norman, Olympic runner Cathy Freeman and rugby league's king, Wally Lewis.
He said his success was the result of marrying determination with the dream of a country kid who refused to quit.
"I started playing tennis on a court we built next to our house on my parents' cattle property outside Rockhampton," Laver said. "I would drive with my brothers Trevor and Bob on our old farm truck out to the Fitzroy River and shovel in the sand and silt and loam, and take it home to make our court.
"Then I would practise for hours against anyone who would have a hit with me."
There was no television at the time so Laver could only hear on the radio about the players he revered - Frank Sedgman, Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall. It wasn't until he came to Milton in inner-west Brisbane for tournaments in the early 1950s that he first saw them playing.
Laver's parents, Roy and Melba, were a pair of tennis fanatics who had fallen in love at Dingo, 147km west of Rockhampton. They took their son all over Queensland for junior tennis events; often rising at 2am, with Melba preparing sandwiches and Thermoses of tea before Roy drove them hundreds of kilometres in the days when many Queensland roads were just dirt tracks.
A QUINTESSENTIAL QUEENSLANDER
The Rocket" has lived in southern California for most of his life but the son of an outback cattleman is as quintessentially Queensland as a schooner of XXXX and a steak at Brisbane's Breakfast Creek Hotel.
In fact that's what he was having for lunch in the beer garden of the iconic inner-north hotel five years ago when I first met him with a bunch of his oldest pals from the Sunshine State, including celebrated Brisbane tennis coach Jim Shepherd, former players Daphne and Trevor Fancutt, and three journalists who covered his career for The Courier-Mail - Lawrie Kavanagh, Hugh Lunn and Adrian McGregor.
Laver's hair started to vanish years ago, and here and there his pale skin showed war wounds from repeated skirmishes with the sun. He was dressed anonymously as if he had just come in from weeding the garden, in a khaki green shirt and green shorts, and the only thing that betrayed his identity as arguably the finest tennis player who ever lived was that he had his name stamped on the brown canvas tennis shoes at the end of his skinny, pink legs.
On each heel, just above the Adidas brand symbol, was the name of the style. Rod Laver was wearing a pair of "Rod Lavers" but there was now a stutter to his step as he made his way past the tables of patrons savouring their pale ales and steaks.
The Rocket trounced John Newcombe to win the last of his four Wimbledon men's singles titles in 1969 but at the Creek he was happier talking about catching yabbies as a kid and the fishing around Yeppoon.
Back in the days when even the world's top tennis players hardly earned enough for bus fare, Laver used to compete interstate by travelling as a passenger in fellow Queenslander Trevor Fancutt's beige VW Beetle, with all their luggage and racquets on the roof rack.
It was a time when Queensland - and the Queensland bush in particular - produced Laver, Mal Anderson and Roy Emerson, who all made a huge mark on the world game.
The stories flowed at the Creek as Laver passed up the appropriately named "rocket salad" - one of the specials on the board - for a small steak, coleslaw and chips, though in keeping with his still wiry frame, most of the chips stayed on the plate.
Jim Shepherd reckoned that while Laver's speed thrilled crowds around the world, he was never faster than when he danced around the antbed courts as a youngster at the back of Jim's place in Brisbane's southside Moorooka, getting ready to play the big events at Milton.
A year after Laver won his first Australian title there, Emerson beat him in four sets for the 1961 Australian title on the grass at Kooyong in Melbourne on his way to six Australian titles, as well as two French, two Wimbledon and two US crowns.
That record of 12 major singles championships stayed in place for 33 years until broken by American Pete Sampras's 2000 Wimbledon win over Mount Isa-born Pat Rafter, another great from the Queensland country.
BOY FROM THE BUSH
Emerson had started his career back in the early 1940s by hitting balls against the wall of the two-room Nukku school, 155km northwest of Brisbane. In those days he spent his mornings barefoot, building his fitness by running over the frosty ground chasing cows on the family dairy farm outside Blackbutt.
He was one of those bush kids who eschewed footwear until his mid-teens and it would get so cold before milking up on the range that he would keep his toes from getting frostbitten by standing in fresh, steaming heaps of cow manure. The Nukku school has since been moved to Blackbutt, where it serves as the Roy Emerson Museum.
As well as his 12 Grand Slam singles titles in the world's four major events, Emerson won 16 "slam" doubles titles as well. Now 82, he is also based in California but he was back in Blackbutt in January 2017 for the unveiling of a statue honouring his remarkable career.
At the ceremony, Emerson was cheered by a few hundred friends and relatives, including Joy, his wife of almost 60 years.
Ashley Cooper, a Melbourne player who would eventually settle in Brisbane after winning the Australian, Wimbledon and US singles titles, told the crowd that everywhere Roy went in his days as the world's No. 1 player, he told people that in Queensland pet kangaroos were tasked with carrying home the shopping in their pouches.
Cooper spent a month rooming in London with Emerson on their first trip to Wimbledon in 1954, and was woken every morning not by the gentle chimes of an alarm clock but by the lean and tough Queensland bushie grabbing him in a headlock and slamming him into the floor. "It certainly woke you up pretty quickly," Cooper said. "I was very glad when Wimbledon was over."
Wendy Turnbull, another Queensland great who won nine Grand Slam doubles titles and made it to the finals of the Australian, French and US women's singles in the late '70s and 1980, told the crowd how Roy would tell tall tales to wide-eyed fans overseas that before taking up tennis he had worked in country Queensland as a "banana bender", twisting the fruit into its distinctive shape.
Emerson played his tennis with the same great humour and flair. He is the only man to have won both singles and doubles titles at all of the big four events of world tennis.
"His record speaks for itself," Turnbull told the crowd. "But above all that, Roy is a great person as well and that's what's really important."
Also paying tribute to Emerson that day were his sisters Daph and Hazel. In October 1957, Daph married another tennis star from the Queensland bush, Mal Anderson. The media called it the Tennis Wedding of the Year, with 500 people packing out St Andrew's Anglican Church in Brisbane's inner-north Lutwyche.
Like Laver, Anderson had learnt to play on a dirt court on a Queensland cattle property - in his case a 2400ha run at Theodore (210km south of Rockhampton). His parents - Guy and Connie - chipped away the grass to make an earthen court and all the neighbours would come to play on big social occasions.
"It was tough getting to the top then when you lived in the bush, and I think we appreciated things [more] in those days," Anderson tells Qweekend.
"All our families were very tennis-orientated. They played social tennis and it was bred into our blood. We loved the game."
Anderson's big break came when Arthur Liddle, then the top player in Queensland who also worked as a manager for Slazenger, the racquet makers, saw him play at Rockhampton and suggested he move to Brisbane.
"I got the train down from Theodore," Anderson says, "and Arthur ended up getting accommodation for me and a job at the fruit and vegie markets, which were at Roma St [in the city] back then. I would be throwing bags of potatoes around at six in the morning before tennis practice.
"I met Roy Emerson at around that time. We were at Warwick [on the Southern Downs] at a tournament and we were walking around to see the draw for the next day when Roy introduced me to his sister Daph, who became the No. 1 junior in Queensland in 1953. I thought she was very nice from the first moment, and I still do."
Anderson is 83 now and living in an Albany Creek retirement village in Brisbane's north with his wife of 61 years, but his great performances still seem like they were only yesterday. He made the men's singles quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 1956. "Then in 1957 Ashley Cooper and I won the French doubles, but at Wimbledon I lost in the round of 16 to Vic Seixas from America.
"Harry Hopman, the great Australian coach, then helped me to the biggest win of my career. Harry's great passion was the Davis Cup teams competition. Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, who were the big Australian stars at the time, had just turned professional so they weren't eligible to play. I was struggling a little bit. Just before the US singles I got this letter from Harry. He knew I was due to get married in Brisbane straight after the tournament. My results had been a bit mediocre and he said if I lost early in the US Open, he wanted me to cancel my wedding and come straight to Melbourne to prepare for the Davis Cup.
"Cancel the wedding? I thought, my God. I trained like never before and beat Ashley Cooper in straight sets in the final. I don't know what I would have said to Daph if I'd lost in the first or second round. If I'd told Harry I was going ahead with the wedding regardless, I may never have played for Australia again. But winning that tournament was a great thrill and gave me a lot of self-belief."
The wedding in Lutwyche went ahead as planned and Anderson remained a leading player on the world scene for another 16 years. His tennis centre at Grange, also in Brisbane's inner north, was a landmark for 37 years until he sold it to property developers in 1998.
In December 2017, Anderson was officially added to Brisbane's remarkable Tennis Trail that links the greats of the game across the city. A park bench in his honour was unveiled, appropriately, in Tennis Avenue, Ashgrove, in the northwestern suburbs, to join such other landmarks as Wendy Turnbull Park in northside Bracken Ridge, the Ashley Cooper and Rod Laver plaques in the Roma Street Parkland, the Jimmy Shepherd Rebound Wall in southside Yeronga, the rejuvenated Frew Park in Milton, and the Pat Rafter Arena, Rod Laver Footbridge, Ken Fletcher Park, and Daphne Fancutt Amphitheatre at Tennyson, 7km south of the city and home to the Queensland Tennis Centre. The latest addition is the John Millman Rebound Wall at eastside Carindale, honouring the Brisbane battler who bundled Roger Federer out of last year's US Open before falling in the quarter-finals.
THE MEMORIES REMAIN
Queensland has always punched above its weight in tennis and tomorrow night's Australian Open men's final will mark the 50th anniversary of Laver's last Australian Open victory, the 1969 championship, again at Milton. In recent years Laver has taken his share of knocks with hip and knee replacements, a stroke, and most painfully, in 2012, the loss of Mary, his wife of 46 years. But the memories of his great matches live on.
At Milton in 1969, he beat the big Spaniard Andrés Gimeno in the final for the Australian title after winning a marathon semi-final against compatriot Tony Roche 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3.
Laver collected the winner's cheque of $4500 but greater things beckoned as later that year he went on to beat Ken Rosewall for the French Open title, John Newcombe for the Wimbledon crown, and Roche again for the US Open championship. In all Laver won 200 career titles, the most in tennis history, including four Wimbledons, three Australian championships, and two each at the French and US Opens.
He often ponders how a small, weedy kid from a cattle property a long way from major tennis centres could do what no one man or woman has ever done in the game.
He credits Queensland and its people for much of his success. "The Queensland bush was a wonderful place to grow up," Laver says. "The weather, the encouraging people, the wide open spaces. It has always produced great sporting talent. Guys like me and Mal Anderson and Roy Emerson, we loved being outdoors and playing sport. The competition among us was very healthy and of course there was that wonderful competitive nature of Queenslanders.
"It drove us on to be the best we could be." ■