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Laver considers Federer best player ever

by Jack Gallagher

Staff Writer

Australian tennis legend Rod Laver was a special guest at the recent Shanghai Rolex Masters tournament. Making his first trip to China, the only man to win the Grand Slam — which he did twice — spoke to a select group of reporters during the event.

Laver, now 75, covered a wide range of topics during the session and had some very interesting observations.

What follows is some of that discussion:

Will the Grand Slam ever be won again?

I would say yes, it would be done again. I don’t own this title. It was something that I was thrilled to have been able to accomplish it. I think, yes, it could be done.

When I look at the way (Rafael) Nadal plays on grass, clay and hard courts, especially this year, he’s obviously one that can win it. The only reason why (Roger) Federer didn’t win a Grand Slam was because of Nadal on clay. Had he been an expert, a specialist, that good. . . . The both of them came along at a unique time. They had a great rivalry.

Of course, you know, Nadal to win eight tournaments in a row at the French (Open), it’s almost unheard of.

You won three of your Slams on grass. How much difference does that make to the equation?

It makes a huge difference. That’s what there was back then. I had to learn to play on grass. I had to learn to play on clay. There was no cement or hard court. You played with what you’re with.

I mean, today, you have the players playing on all the surfaces. When you look at grass, maybe some of them don’t like playing grass very well.

I know some of the ladies this last year were battling slipping and sliding, and didn’t like it. Maybe because they weren’t able to play on the court enough because it was a wet summer. There wasn’t much chance to get out there and play.

But the Grand Slam is something, you’ve got to have Lady Luck riding on your shoulder to come through because you got no injuries, no sickness, no colds. Whatever it takes for nine months to go through. It’s something that you have to go with.

And, of course, the other thing is, maybe some of the players you don’t like to play are in the bottom half of the draw and don’t get out to the semifinals and finals.

You have to play seven matches. That’s the criteria. Forget about all the other things that are going on. If you just think about, if he wins, he has to play . . . you can’t look that way.

As someone who factors into the argument, do you feel like this whole thing with the greatest of all time, is there any legitimate way you can compare yourself to Roger Federer, or can you just look at players from the particular same eras?

I’ve always said if you’re the best in your era, that’s as good as you really can do. You could take it back to is it Fred Perry, is it Don Budge, is it myself that came along?

When I look at Federer, with what he’s accomplished, against the competition that he’s accomplished it with, I would have to say I would think that Roger is the greatest player, just because his record, the consistency over a span of six, eight years has been pretty amazing. I think that sort of tells you something.

And, of course, the fact that he likes the world of tennis, the history of the game. I think his charitable involvement is great. Hit for Haiti was one that they did. When Queensland had all those floods about three years ago, I remember he called up one day and said, What can we do?

That was awfully nice of him. I said, You did something terrific last year with Hit for Haiti. Can you do something like that with the players?

He went to Nadal, (Andy) Roddick, all the players, said, Would you join in and help us play and have a special day?

So, you know, those type of things brings a player like Federer high in the eyes of not just the competition but the public.

In terms of his tennis, you were saying you think Federer is maybe regarded as the greatest. Do you think your opinion might change in four or five years with what Nadal is doing at the moment?

It is true. You look at Nadal, the way he’s proven himself. How many Grand Slams has he got going now (Nadal has won 13)?

It’s quite amazing that he’s done so well. But he’s certainly an unbelievable player. I watched the U.S. Open this year with (Novak) Djokovic. It was just incredible. It was such a great match.

You look at his game. Then, of course, you can look at Djokovic two years ago, three years ago when he played so well on the clay back then.

We thought, how is he doing this?

He (Djokovic) went on a regimen of training, stretching, diet. That’s what happens. So, yes. Well, I think you have to be able to see them at the end of their career.

Federer is not at the end of his career, but he’s now finding it difficult to compete week in and week out, where before he had no trouble competing.

I think he’s certainly capable of winning maybe the Australian, and of course Wimbledon is something that he’s pretty involved with. I think he likes those two type of games.

Unfortunately, someone like Nadal is always going to knock him off on the clay.

How hard is it for Roger where he is now? He’s still talking this has just been a moment, he’s going to get it all back. It seems realistic he’s never going to be at that level consistently again. Is that something when you’ve been a superstar that is tough to admit?

The only thing I can say is sometimes when you get to be in your 30s, 30 to 35, somewhere in there, in my game, I played a match the day before, I played a terrific match, played 100%, as good as I was on a 21-type thing.

The next day I go out and there’s nothing. So what is it? Is it the desire? Is it your emotion, does it come up? Is your adrenaline not flowing as well as it normally does in a match? That’s the times I found a problem.

I don’t know whether Roger’s feeling anything of that nature. But sometimes I notice him, he just doesn’t have it that day. But the day before he was magnificent.

So it’s not a training method, fitness, nothing to do with his body. So, you know, you just wonder, is it adrenaline that gets you up for matches.

The argument about the greatest of all time, in your era was it as pronounced?

I don’t remember them talking about something like that as much.

Certainly, yes, they brought up the older players, whether it be Budge, when you get into that era, you get into Lew Hoad. Lew Hoad actually had three legs in and was playing the final of the U.S. Open and got beaten by (Ken) Rosewall in the final.

I happened to be there on that day. At age 17, that was my first trip around the world. I was in the stands at Forest Hills and watched that.

So, you know, there’s plenty of people that have been close.

Because of the strength of the game, rackets, equipment, they now get wrist injuries and shoulder injuries, back injuries. Were they as prevalent in your day?

Yeah, everybody had some tennis elbows, that type of thing. Back injuries, I certainly had my share of back injuries. That’s sort of an occupational hazard.

Being a left-hander, I had a big left side, but nothing on the right. Sometimes I would just be brushing my teeth and fall in the sink because of just spasms. So that happens. That will put you out of the game for a few days.

I never had to default matches. I think probably once I sprained an ankle, I just couldn’t go any longer. I remember. But there was hardly any times when I couldn’t play in matches or finish a match, that type of thing.

But injuries, as I said, the biggest problem with injuries now is the way they play. It’s so amazingly tough. They’re all playing from the baseline most of the time. You know, your shoulders and wrists, they’ve got to take a beating.

You only have to mis-hit a ball a few times before something starts to give. That’s how tennis elbows happen. It’s when you’re coming in, maybe you’re a little bit cold, you catch it on the wood, you’re committing, something’s got to give. That happens.

Rafa is a lefty. Do you think it’s one of his advantages in front of the other big guys?

Well, you know, in some ways I think left-handers have an advantage. There’s different ways to look at it. Lefties generally seem to have more spin ability than a right-hander. Normally left-handers have more spin. They serve, they have a little bit more active activity on the ball. So those things I think help.

And the other side of it is when you’re playing and you’re down 30-40 on serve, where does your best serve go? It can go way out wide, most times with a right-hander, to their weakest side. You have little advantages like that.

If you’ve got an ad-in, if you’ve got the ad, those sort of things also apply. You’re taking your best shot on the court all the time. I think those type of things do actually help with being a lefty.

It’s no real answer, but I think that’s probably a potential way lefties seem to work. I think (John) McEnroe always had that ability. You’re saving a match point on the ad court, which is your first best shot.

I guess playing with the money today would appeal to you. Would playing in the sport the way it is today appeal to you as much?

Well, of course, I’m sure I would like to try to be competitive in today’s world of players. But, you know, if you’re not 6-2, 6-4, you would have to do a lot of other things well to combat the bigger man.

But, you know, I found that when I tried to use those composite racquets, the size of them, compared with my little wooden racquet, it was just like night and day. It was so easy to play with them.

You just don’t know how far you could advance. But I always put a lot of spin on the ball. I see Nadal, with the spins that he comes up with, and that forehand that he’s got. Of course, he’s got a big, strong arm as well.

If you were playing today, if you had all the advantages of training techniques, nutrition, etc., how do you think you would get on today?

I would think it would be tough for me. My mechanics would have to be totally changed from a serve-volleying person to just a baseliner.

Would I be capable of hitting the ball over the net 20 and 30 times and having it deep and having it accurate all the time?

I don’t think that would be in me. I never tried to do that in my career. I figured if I got it over the net five times, I’m doing good, I’m going to the net.

But a lot of that came from the grass. When you got pretty raw grass out there, you know, you can’t let the ball bounce too many times because you know it’s going to run along the ground, so you have got to get to the net, you have got to half volley it.