Mailbag: What if Rod Laver’s ‘lost years’ never existed?

Let’s do something different and start with a thought exercise. This week, Sports Illustrated has a cool package titled “What if?”—we’ll have digital blowout next week— that explores some of the hypotheticals in sports. This got me thinking about Rod Laver. What if he didn’t have to go on that self-imposed exile from the majors?

Laver was neither physically imposing (5’8”) nor constitutionally imposing (he often poured the post-match beer for the player he’d just beaten) but, damn, could he play tennis. Attacking at every opportunity and smiting a one-handed backhand, Laver, of course, won the almighty Grand Slam in 1962. But late that year, after helping win the Davis Cup for Australia, Laver was at a career crossroads. Under the criminally unfair system, only amateurs were allowed to enter the majors, the most prestigious events. If Laver wanted to make an actual living at the sport he dominated, he would have to turn pro. And so he did.

For five of his prime years (1963-67) Laver did not enter a single major. When the wrong was finally righted and Open Era tennis permitted all the best players to enter all the best events, Laver picked up where he had left off. In 1969, he won the Grand Slam again, a feat no male player has replicated since. By then, he was 31, in his autumn years.

“Major titles won” has become the benchmark for assessing the great tennis careers. Laver’s 11 majors puts him in rarefied air, but behind the likes of Novak Djokovic (12), Rafael Nadal (14) and Roger Federer (18). Some quick-and-easy extrapolation: If Laver had averaged even two majors for each of those lost years—an awfully conservative estimate—he would have 21 majors, the most in the history of men’s tennis.

The happy aside here: Whether motivated by their good-naturedness, their reverence for history and/or a ration of guilt, both Federer and Nadal have befriended Laver, now 78, and speak openly about his greatness. In September, they will headline a new event that has ambitions of establishing a Ryder Cup knock-off in tennis. A nod to their forebear—and maybe as a tacit acknowledgement that they benefit from his historical shortchange—the competition will be known as The Laver Cup.       


Hi Jon, much to Stan the Man's dislike to join the club or insistence that his achievements pale in comparison to the others, seeing the ATP Top Five this week and the reemergence of Fedal, isn't it high time to call the Big Five as here, ultimately, even if Stan asserts otherwise?
Best regards, Rommel

• I have no real objection to letting Wawrinka inside the velvet rope and declaring it a Big Five. Three majors—three different ones, at that—is no small feat. But we’ve said this before: Wawrinka contra Murray is not much of a comparison. Prize money is—at least lately—a good barometer for comparing contemporaries. The money generally correlates well with the prestige of the events. While Murray and Stan have, of course, won three majors apiece, Murray has won $60M in career earnings. Wawrinka? $29M.

Suppose Roger Federer is granted a wish to take his pick of one more Grand Slam to win. Which do you think he'd choose: a second French Open title or an eighth Wimbledon? Any chance we'd get an answer from him on this?
Esha, Brooklyn

• Good one. And we can speculate, but we also can ask Federer and get his answer. Guessing here, but I think his reverence for Wimbledon might make it a smidge higher than the others. It’s also the site of his first, breakthrough Slam. So if we’re mandating this his final victory, there’s a nice come-full-circle motif.

I'll throw one out here, too, though. Federer and Nadal have met multiple times in Paris, Melbourne and Wimbledon, including finals. They have never met at the U.S. Open. (Though they've been one point away.) Be nice if The Greatest of Rivalries in Sports could get a New York date on their iCalendars.

When Roland Garros opens its gates this year, most likely five of the top 10 men's seeds, and eight of the top 16 will be 30 or older.

Is this a first? Seems like this pecking order should hold until at least the U.S. Open. Do you think this is the new normal? Is it time to shift our “breakout” expectation age from 20-21 to 26-27 (ahem…Raonic, Nishikori, Dimitrov, et al)?

• This continues our aging discussion from last week. Yes, at some point we should cease referring to this as a trend and simply adjust (happily) to this new reality. We should point out, though, that this aging runs deep. Yes, you see representations at the top. But note guys like this who are still out there playing.

Seriously what Maria Lucic-Baroni is doing at age 35 is unprecedented!
Reader name misplaced

• We say it again: this “aging of the field” is a force of good. If teenage up-and-comers recognize that their careers can get sideways and yet they can still fulfill their potential and goals in their mid-30s, is this not a benefit for everyone?

I was not prepared for Tony Romo's retirement to be the biggest story in sports history.

• A quick break from tennis. Last week, North Carolina won the NCAA tournament. Baseball season opened. Tiger Woods withdrew from the Masters. And—far and away—the big story was Tony Romo’s retirement and move to CBS Sports. For all the slings and arrows football absorbs, man, the NFL is still King.

Dear Jon, thanks for all you do, big fan of your work. I am writing because I have an irresistible itch and only you can scratch it.  

In your last two Mailbags, you have included entries from “Professor Emma Esther.” Prof. Esther is not happy that Roger Federer is called the GOAT when Serena and other women players’ (Graf, Navratilova) accomplishments are numerically superior within the women's game.  

There is no need to tip-toe around the obvious rebuttal, although I understand you reluctance given what gets people fired these days in your profession. Roger is the GOAT because Serena could play 1000 sets against him and she would have absolutely no chance at winning a single one. Heck, Serena would not beat most good male college players. That's why it makes perfect sense to say Serena is the greatest female player of all time and Roger is simply the greatest of all time. Not sexist, not controversial, just simple common sense and it shouldn't hurt anyone's feelings. You are the consummate diplomat and I'm sure you could find a way to put it tactfully. Just please do because it's driving me nuts.    

Keep up the great work.  
Sincerely, Justin

• I hear you but I think there’s an easy response that relies less on diplomacy than it does logic. Simply: you cannot have it both ways. You see men’s and women’s tennis as separate entities—as I do—and appreciate each tour independent of the other. Or you consider this one sport, which might obviate the need for “his” and “hers” distinctions, but then opens the door to unflattering comparisons.

I don’t think Roger is the GOAT because he beats Serena. That a mediocre heavyweight boxer could knock out 150-lb. Floyd Mayweather does not undercut (no pun intended) the latter’s greatness. The worst WNBA team beats the dynastic UConn women’s teams. So what? We often sort athletes based on their physiques and the respective leagues. 

I think Roger Federer is the GOAT (as of now, anyway) because he compares favorably to Laver and Nadal. And Serena is the GOAT because she compares favorably to Graf, Martina and Chris Evert. Until men and women compete against each other, the imagined head-to-heads are irrelevant. But until they compete against each other we need not differentiate “his” and “hers” and “male” and “female.”

If calling Roger Federer the greatest tennis player of all time is “sexism and misogyny,” then Professor Emma Esther must be consistent and admit Serena Williams is not the GOAT either. That distinction belongs to one Esther Vergeer, winner of every Grand Slam singles match she ever played, as well as an astounding 14 consecutive year-end Masters tournaments and 668 (!!!) weeks as World No. One. Surely with that surname, our distinguished professor would realize this! If Prof. Esther fails to acknowledge Vergeer's status as the GOAT, I shall accuse her of being a pro-American chauvinistic ableist.
Jesse, Wisconsin

• Point taken. As I often do—actually, as I have never previously done—I quote Offspring:

(Keep ‘em Separated)

Having just finished watching the Ostapenko vs. Wozniacki match, I'm wondering why we haven't heard much about her (Ostapenko)? She's got obviously got game for days, appears to relish the competition, transitioned from juniors to the main tour at breakneck speed, and just dished out a beat down to Wozniacki (a player who we can all agree doesn't give it away for free), the likes of which I haven't seen since Kvitova vs. anyone (when Petra is on her game). What's not to love? 
Jesse, Darwin, Australia 

• Agree that there’s a lot to like. And agree that if she were named Taylor or Cameron and were from Laguna or Lakeland or Lacrosse or Lansing (and not Latvia) she would be getting more attention, especially in the U.S. Here’s the reality of tennis today: you make your bones at the majors; you solidify those bones—calcium and all—at the other events. So a player, like Ostapenko, who’s never made the middle weekend of a Slam, will struggle for recognition.

Thank you for printing my question. For whatever it's worth, I'm a Hematologist/Oncologist, which (particularly in the last decade or so) is a specialty that encompasses a lot of immunology, and I think you're absolutely right about all the travel/jet lag/fatigue affecting players' ability to fight off infections and toxic insults. (I still like the idea of food tasters though, if only for the imagery.)

Thank you again for all your great work!
Sincerely, Trent Miller

“ATP/WTA food taster” sounds like an internship, if ever there were one.

• Lindsay Davenport was the most recent guest on the SI/Tennis Channel podcast and she was, predictably, great. A wide-ranging conversation that encompasses Federer, Nadal, WTA coaching and the eminently binge-able Big Little Lies.

• Good-bye Corkies, hello bagels. The Memphis event is headed to Nassau Coliseum.

• Joel Drucker sends this dispatch from Charleston.

• Mary Carillo asks tough questions to WTA CEO Steve Simon. His responses are interesting.

• Tennis string brand Solinco has signed Bob and Mike Bryan.

• Nick has this week’s LLS: Johanna Konta and Allison Williams


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