Tennis legend Rod Laver analyzes today's game and players

Discovering two-time tennis Grand Slam winner Rod Laver in a dark business suit in a popular Los Angeles restaurant is as out of place as finding a Dickens character roaming around in an Ernest Hemingway novel.

There wasn't a tennis court within 10 miles. And where was his trademark: the floppy hat that looked as though it had just been pulled soaking wet out of the washing machine? Shouldn't the Rocket be off practicing somehwere?

Business with one of the companies whose products Laver endorses was what had brought him into the city from his home near Santa Barbara. But you can still see Rod Laver playing tennis fairly frequently these days against stars from his own era, including Ken Rosewall and Roy Emerson.

Competing in Legends of Tennis tournaments (limited to ages 35-45) keeps him on the road for approximately 16 weeks a year. But the money is great, the crowds more than just appreciative, and the chance to renew old acquaintances on a regular basis something that doesn't usually happen for a superstar past his prime.

''Catch us sometime and I think you'll agree that the Legends is still a pretty high level brand of tennis,'' he told me. ''Maybe we don't all hit the ball quite as well as we used to, but there is nothing wrong with our heads or our strategy. I think maybe the biggest difference for me is practicing an hour a day for one of these things, as opposed to the three or four hours minimum I used to hit when I was on the pro circuit.''

Asked if he could possibly compare today's top pros with those of his time, Laver replied: ''Whenever you try to compare players from one era with another you get into trouble because so many things have changed.

''Years ago, in order to be a top star, you had to be able to win on grass, clay, and concrete. Now you're talking about dealing chiefly with one surface - a kind of composite court that plays mostly like concrete.

''Of course Wimbledon is still played on grass, but that's the exception. Basically my feeling is that a great player would be great in any era and it could just as easily be baseball as tennis.''

Rod says two things that have upgraded today's game are larger rackets and the increased use of heavy topspin.

''Any time you give a player more surface with which to hit the ball, you're going to improve his game,'' he explained. ''He's not going to miss as often and he's going to hit better shots. That also has to do something for his confidence , which is a big part of any pro sport.

''When I was playing, I'd usually return service from a position immediately in back of the baseline,'' he continued. ''But today everybody plays such a heavy topspin-baseline game that you've now got guys standing six and eight feet in back of the baseline and they still can't return the ball. They can't return because the ball is consistently jumping up shoulder high on them.''

Although Bjorn Borg won a record five consecutive Wimbledon titles, he has never taken home a US Open championship. Does Laver have any ideas on that subject?

''I think several things have combined to hurt Borg's chances at the US Open, although I wouldn't want to say positively they are the reasons he hasn't won there yet,'' Rod remarked. ''But after weeks of mentally and physically preparing your game for Wimbledon's grass courts, it's tough to have to switch within a very short time to a hard surface.

''Also, if you'll look at the record, Borg has always had to face an extremely tough opponent in the US Open finals,'' he continued. ''Another thing, and I might be wrong on this, I can't remember Bjorn ever breaking anybody's service in a US Open when it really counted.''

For those who never saw Laver in his prime, he was a machine, but with its own brain. At one point in his career, he had a Wimbledon record streak of 31 straight match wins. When he lost, which wasn't often, it was treated no more seriously than an 0-4 day at the plate for Willie Mays. Rodney the Rocket was a loser only until the start of his next tournament.

Several years ago, during an interview with Rod's fellow Australian John Newcombe at the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston, I suddenly decided to ask Newk why he thought Laver won so much.

Replied Newcombe: ''Because Rod doesn't have a lot of height (he's 5 ft. 8 in.), I think a lot of people have a tendency not to realize what a great athlete he is. But he can tear you to pieces with his topspin, low volleys, and looping forehand placements. In addition to all that, he also works harder than anyone on the tour.

''You know, when Laver first turned pro, he wasn't all that great,'' John added. ''He had the weakness most left-handers have in their backhand, and his forehand wasn't much better. He had his crossroads just like anyone. But he made both his backhand and forehand great by going out and practicing and practicing. That was the story of his whole game - work and practice, plus the unbelievable topspin he almost always put on the ball.''

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