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Rod Laver, the Australian tennis legend shown here with his Grand Slam trophies, is usually attending the Australian Open this time of the year. But the pandemic has him watching the matches from the Rod Laver Arena at his Carlsbad home. Photo by Jay Paris
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Sports Talk: Pandemic has Laver watching his beloved Australian Open from afar

Rod Laver is watching the Australian Open, which isn’t news. That he’s doing so in his longtime Carlsbad home is.

“The tennis has been pretty good,” Laver said. “But this COVID-19 has been tough on the tournament.”

Today’s upside-down world has Laver in North County instead of Down Under for the sport’s first major, which ends on Sunday.

Laver, 82, skipped the 15-hour trek to Melbourne because of the pandemic. That has the “Rocket” cooling his jets and eyeing the action on TV, where he roots for Spain’s Rafael Nadal and Australia’s Ashleigh Barty.

For Laver it’s the reunion with his colleagues and him participating in the festivities, as much as the tennis, that has him longing for his homeland. The Australian Open possesses a sunny vibe and is known as the “Happy Slam,” held during the summer and drawing spirited fans of all ages.

The event’s biggest booster is Laver, a player for the ages as the only competitor to win two Grand Slams. As an amateur in 1962 and as a pro in 1969, Laver won the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open.

Do that, and they put your name in lights. That’s certainly true of this mate as the Australian Open’s signature venue at its sprawling complex is the Rod Laver Arena.

Of Laver’s countless triumphs and trophies, having Melbourne’s grandest indoor arena carrying his letters eclipses them all. Tennis is just part of the schedule, which includes everything from concerts to rodeos and draws some 1.5 million customers annually.

“It’s amazing to have my name on the stadium,” said Laver, who won the Australian Open three times. “I’m honored that Australia did that for me because there could have been a lot of different names on it. I was extremely happy that they picked me.”

That gesture in 2000 also gave Laver a lift after what he called a “rough patch.” Laver, always a battler with 200 titles to his credit, had just emerged from the toughest fight.

Two years earlier Laver suffered an aneurysm during an interview at the Los Angeles Tennis Center at UCLA. Laver was rushed across campus to the UCLA Medical Center and received immediate care. That possibly saved his life.

Laver rebounded, but it was a challenge. Now it’s difficult finding a day in which Laver, an International Tennis Hall of Fame member, isn’t doing something athletic. There’s golf and his twice-a-week workouts at the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa.

“Rod is determined to stay fit and his perseverance is very admirable,” said Carlsbad’s Emily Hilgemann, Laver’s trainer for 11 years. “He shows up early to warm up and stretch so every session he is at his best. Not very many people like to be pushed like he does.”

The Aussies felt a tug at their heartstrings when christening the 15,000-seat Rod Laver Arena. Laver was not only the world’s top-ranked player from 1964 to 70, but the Queensland native led Australia to five Davis Cup titles.

“He represents what a true Aussie is, and he is such a humble person,” said Nelson Flores, a Melbourne resident who attends the Australian Open. “It’s just not the same without him here.”

Laver’s seat isn’t the only one vacant. Melbourne underwent a recent five-day lockdown because of COVID-19, which had players performing minus the thunderous roars from patrons that accompany the splendid shot-making.

“I’m sure it’s different for the players,” Laver said. “Your concentration level is higher with fans because you don’t want to embarrass yourself by playing badly. You want to prove that you are a good tennis player, and the crowd will tell you if you are.”

He’s among the local masses anticipating the San Diego Padres season, and just maybe it’s because they both traffic in grand slams. Laver, a former San Diego Chargers season-ticket holder, counts Padres owner Peter Seidler as a friend.

No foe of hard work, Laver is off to lift weights with Hilgemann at La Costa. If he’s feeling nostalgic for something bearing his name, he’s also in the right spot.

Close to where Hilgemann puts him through the paces is the resort’s tennis shop, where there’s a plaque honoring Rod Laver.

Contact Jay Paris at [email protected]. Follow him @jparis_sports.