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Tennis great Rod Laver loses his partner in life

'We had a wonderful life,' the Australian Living Treasure says now, and often, of his wife of 46 years, Mary Shelby Laver, who died Nov. 12. 'I can get out now,' he says, 'but I don't want to.'

March 26, 2013|Bill Dwyre
  • Rod and Mary Shelby Laver in an undated family photo. Mary Shelby Laver passed away on Nov. 12 after the two shared 46 years of marriage.
Rod and Mary Shelby Laver in an undated family photo. Mary Shelby Laver passed…

The biggest grand slam of Rod Laver's life had nothing to do with major tennis tournaments.

He met Mary Shelby Peterson at the Jack Kramer Tennis Club. Then, in 1966, at a church in San Rafael, he changed that to Mary Shelby Laver.

Game, set, match.

They left the marriage ceremony by walking under an arch of tennis rackets formed by, among others, tennis greats Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Mal Anderson and Barry MacKay.

When Mary died Nov. 12 at their home in Carlsbad, they had had 46 years of marriage and Laver had a hole in his heart the size of a tennis ball.

"We had a wonderful life," he says now, and often. She was 84, Laver is 74.

Back then, he was the sports hero from far-off Australia. She was a divorced mom, born in Illinois, knowing little about tennis, and with three kids. She had gone to the Kramer club to watch swimming. He was there to play a tennis match.

"We hit it off, right away," he says.

Laver won all four Grand Slam tournaments in 1962 as an amateur, then did it again in 1969 in the Open era. Nobody has done that, nor probably ever will again. He has been credited with 200 titles. Nobody has done that, nor probably will.

When the tennis ended, with Laver standing across the net from an 18-year-old named Bjorn Borg in the late 1970s and realizing, "I was 38, I could stay with him, but I couldn't beat him," there was plenty left, because of Mary.

Her three children, Ron, Steve and Ann, joined with Rod and Mary's son, Rick, for life after tennis. Mary was in control. According to her daughter, Ann Bennett, Mary was always in control.

"One time, to show how she always ran everything," Ann says, "we gave her a train conductor's uniform, including the conductor's cap."

The Lavers lived in homes from Rancho Mirage to Corona del Mar to a ranch near Santa Barbara.

"My mother liked to decorate," says Ann. "A new house meant new decorations."

She also was good with numbers. Laver's career, even at a time when the huge money was not being paid in tennis, produced those good numbers. Mary invested them, without computers and only exhaustive research and good instincts.

"My mother took a lot of good money," says son Rick Laver, "and turned it into a whole lot of good money."

Mary's husband was an international sports icon. Still is. Much of the world just called him "Rocket." Still does. He went into the Hall of Fame in 1981. The Australian Open's main stadium is Rod Laver Arena. The country has even designated him an Australian Living Treasure.

But when the Australian Living Treasure almost lost the middle word of that designation to a serious stroke in 1998, Mary became the treasure.

She battled for his healthcare, challenged nurses about an inoperative ice bed when his fever got to 106. She moved near UCLA, where Laver would remain hospitalized for a month. She sat for hours, while he tore pages out of magazines with his right hand and tossed them into a wastebasket for therapy.

Laver recovered fully. No more 18-year-old Borgs to battle in tennis, but his golf game returned.

Soon, Mary was hit with a series of serious health problems, including breast cancer and several heart attacks. Then, four years ago, peripheral neuropathy took over her body. It is a complicated condition, often manifesting itself in burning nerve endings in hands and feet.

Laver became the caregiver.

"It never was like, now it is your turn," Laver says. "She never said anything like that."

The world traveler became a homebody and wanted it no other way. Laver spent hours rubbing heat and pain out of her feet, filling buckets with ice for those feet, giving her nine pills a day of vitamin D to calm her nerve endings, even holding special lighting on painful areas to stimulate blood flow.

"Sometimes, we would put an ice pack on her head," Laver says. "It would melt almost immediately."

There was no specific cause of death, just an accumulation of everything. Ann says her family had seen her, was around her, and she was ready.

Since November, Laver has ventured out just a little, to his brother's 80th birthday party in Australia, to the Indian Wells tournament.

"I can get out now," he says, "but I don't want to."

Words on the back page of the program from Mary's memorial service nudge him: "Miss me a little, but not too long."

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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