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Sports Talk: Laver’s cup runneth over on Grand Slam anniversary

There’s a big to-do regarding tennis legend Rod Laver about an epic milestone he’s reached.

Who knew him celebrating 20 years of being a Carlsbad resident would resonate around the world.

Oh that’s not quite it? My bad.

We jest, of course, but we do so with a hearty congratulation to “The Rocket.” North County’s most famous tennis player is being toasted again this week at the U.S. Open.

Laver, 81, is being honored for it being the 50th anniversary of him winning his second Grand Slam in 1969.  In one calendar year he won the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Rod Laver holds trophy after his 1969 U.S. Open victory that completed the second of his two Grand Slams. Courtesy photo

No player had ever won two Grand Slams, with Laver’s first one coming as an amateur in 1962. 

His four-set triumph at the U.S. Open over fellow Aussie Tony Roche in 1969 came at the quaint Forest Hills Tennis Club in Queens and not the super-sized Arthur Ashe Stadium where the tournament is now presented on the borough’s other side.

A player hasn’t duplicated Laver’s Grand Slam once, let alone twice, since he put away Roche in a rain-delayed final that remains one of the sport’s most significant matches.

“Winning that second Grand Slam, for me, it changed my life,’’ Laver said from his home filled with trophies, mementoes and memories from his glorious career.

Laver has seemingly never been more popular as his accomplishment grows in stature. During this golden anniversary tour he’s been showered with standing ovations at the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and now at the U.S. Open.

Him laying claim to those big four events separates him from being a tennis superstar to being perched on a pedestal that no one else has reached.

“It’s been a busy time and a good time with it being the 50th anniversary,” Laver said.

When Laver left the amateur ranks after winning his first Grand Slam in 1962, he never thought he would grace those noted tournaments again. Until 1968, the grand slam events only allowed participants not playing for dough.

So when Laver joined the pro ranks, he was turning his back on tennis’ most prestigious tournaments because he had to make a living.

“When I first turned pro I thought to myself in 1963 I would never see Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, Australian and French again,’’ he said. “Right off the bat, I knew I just had to can the idea of playing them.

“I accepted it and then I went out and got beaten up pretty bad by Lew Hoad, Pancho Gonzalez and some of the other guys.”

On the pro circuit it was a series of one-night stands with sparse paydays. But it paid more than the amateur events, where Laver notes with a wide grin that got a 5-pound All-England Club voucher and a firm handshake from Queen Elizabeth II when he won Wimbledon in 1962.

That seems like a lifetime ago to Laver. But he remembers how he genuflected to the Queen, which really isn’t that much different than what tennis fans do when approaching Laver.

“I remember I was at Costco once when I saw him and I was in awe,” said Darren Bennett, an Aussie and the former Chargers punter who lived in Carlsbad. “I couldn’t believe it was him.’’

So what did Bennett say to his mate?

“Oh no, I would never just approach Mr. Laver like that,” Bennett said. “I mean, that’s Rod Laver.”

His name means so much around the world and in our world as well. The venue for the Australian Open in Melbourne is called “Rod Laver Arena” and the center court at Carlsbad’s Omni Resort and Spa is christened “Rod Laver Court.”

While his love for Australia never waned, Laver is right at home in Carlsbad. Laver and his late wife, Mary, relocated here in 2000 from the Palm Springs area to be near their granddaughter.

“It was just perfect how it worked out because Mary got to spend time with her when she was growing up,” Laver said. “And this was like living in paradise.”

Laver should know considering he’s crisscrossed the globe for business and leisure. His hectic schedule hardly abates after the U.S. Open, as he’ll jet off to Switzerland next month for the Laver Cup, an international competition in its third year.

For Laver the event will cap off a year that has been busy, and well, grand.

Top: Rod Laver looks over his trophies at his Carlsbad home. Laver, 81, is being honored at the U.S. Open as he celebrates the 50th anniversary of his second Grand Slam. Photo by Jay Paris