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A Lightning Rod

Laver's 11 Grand Slam Victories Made Him One of Tennis' Greatest Champions and Showed Way for Pete Sampras


Pete Sampras never went to college, but he has studied hard. His favorite subject, and motivator, is the history of tennis, a game at which he excels.

And, as Patton had Napoleon and Nicklaus had Hogan, Sampras has his own pedestal figure to learn from. As Sampras, top-seeded and top-ranked, begins his quest for yet another major title at the two-week U.S. Open starting today in New York, there will be extra reasons to introduce the name of Rodney George Laver into the proceedings.

Laver won 11 Grand Slam events--three Australian Opens, four Wimbledons, two French Opens and two U.S. Opens. Sampras is one behind that total, with two Australians, four Wimbledons and four U.S. Opens. The record-holder is Roy Emerson, an Australian contemporary of Laver, who has 12 Grand Slam victories.

But Laver is Sampras' model, the image and likeness he wants to emulate, and how he wants to be thought of when he, like Laver, is a star of yesteryear.

Sampras has said it often, in public and in private: Laver is his hero.

Laver, the recipient of all that adulation, is now a 59-year-old Southern California resident with a recently replaced left hip, a relatively quiet lifestyle and a golf game that can, on a given day, trickle down into the 70s. He lives in Rancho Mirage most of the year, is spending much of this summer in Del Mar and has a big old motor home that he and his wife, Mary, set out in when the spirit moves them.

"Got a great satellite dish on top," he said, during a recent interview. "I can get every sporting event I want."

Despite Emerson's 12 Grand Slams and Jack Kramer's pioneering and Bill Tilden's mystique and Ken Rosewall's backhand and Ellsworth Vines' genius and Pancho Gonzalez' serve and Bjorn Borg's amazing Wimbledon run and John McEnroe's verbosity and versatility and Jimmy Connors' grit, the general tennis fan thinks of Laver as the greatest ever.

He was "The Rocket," the sharp-featured left-hander with the red hair and the complete game. Even though he weighed, perhaps, 140, he could serve it big and come in, or he could slice and drop and work his opponent like a yo-yo.

The biggest little player ever, he was as good at the net as he was along the baseline, and those who spent many hours across the net from him quickly forgot that he was only 5 foot 9. Arthur Ashe once called Laver's left forearm "a sledgehammer with freckles."

He was also the only man who ever won two, count 'em, two, Grand Slams, meaning the Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in the same year. Laver did it in 1962 and 1969.

Only one other man has won one Grand Slam, Don Budge in 1938. More incredible, only two others, Fred Perry and Emerson, have won all four titles in their careers.

So, if one is to become a student of the game, who better to study than Laver?

"I'm proud that Pete feels what he feels for tennis tradition," Laver said. "I think the sense of history keeps him going. I like how he doesn't try to be flamboyant, how he lets his racket do the talking. He gets criticized because he's not colorful, but I think he has great manners and that's just his personality. He's quiet, but he's not shy."

Laver deals delicately with his place in history.

"I'm not the best ever," he said. "You just play within your era. . . . Writers write now that Pete is, or is fast becoming, the best in history. And he is, in his era, and maybe more."

The "maybe more" is a hesitation on Laver's part that is echoed by many who watch the career of Sampras, 26.

"He needs to win the French," Laver said. "And I really think he can do it. What will let him do that is what has separated him from all the other players: his drive to be more consistent.

"At one time, he had a weak return of serve. Now, he gets it back. He pushes the other players on their serve to the point where they are just struggling to hold and hardly thinking about breaking him. And his serve is now the best in the modern day.

"Also, his backhand used to rattle once in a while, but he has worked hard to correct that and now he is solid there too."

All of which are elements usable for a French Open championship and the filling of the only current void on Sampras' tennis rap sheet: Number of French Open titles--zero.

Laver won all his other Grand Slam events on grass, remains to this day eager in praise of that fast surface and fully understands the challenge faced by a serve-and-volley player seeking to excel on a French clay surface that slows the pace and dulls the mind with endless baseline rallies.

"You just have to go over there, play lots of events on clay and learn how to do it, how to be comfortable on it," Laver said. "I used to go over for months and months. One year, I won the Italian, German, Oslo and French events. Pete can do it. His game is all-around enough to do it. He just needs to work at it, get comfortable and, maybe, get a little lucky."

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