What was the most difficult Rod Laver ever achieved in his life? Some may say that becoming only the second man to win the Grand Slam of tennis in 1962, while becoming the only player to win a second Slam in 1969. However, the answer to the question is that clearly his recovery from a 1998 stroke. Laver details this episode in his life in his newly updated memoir THE EDUCATION OF A TENNIS PLAYER ($19.95, New Chapter Press, www.TennisHistoryBook.com).
Written with Hall of Fame journalist and historian Bud Collins, THE EDUCATION OF A TENNIS PLAYER is Laver’s first-hand account of his famous 1969 Grand Slam season, capped off by his win over fellow Australian Tony Roche in the final of the U.S. Open. Laver also writes about his childhood and early days in tennis, his 1962 Grand Slam and offers tips on how players of all levels can improve their game. He also shares some of the strategies that helped him to unparalleled success on the tennis court.
Originally published in 1971, THE EDUCATION OF A TENNIS PLAYER was updated by Laver and Collins with new content including his recovery from a near-fatal stroke in 1998 and helping Australia once again win the Davis Cup in 1973. The memoir features descriptions of Laver’s most suspenseful matches and memorable portraits of his biggest rivals Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Tony Roche and Pancho Gonzalez.
It was an ordinary day, I had no premonitions what lay ahead. Was it a day to die? No, but it would be the hardest part of my life.
The hardest part of my life, the terrible feeling of being unable to do anything, was being knocked out – almost knocked off – by a stroke. How much do I remember about the stroke? Not much. It occurred while I was doing a TV interview at a hotel in downtownLos Angeles, July 27, 1998. Suddenly my fingers got numb. I didn’t have control. I know a lot of crazy things happened to me including explosive vomiting and collapsing.
A lucky thing was that the producer had witnessed his father suffering a stroke, and knew what was happening. He phoned for help immediately, and another bit of luck was that we were two blocks from the UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) medical center. A neurosurgical stroke team was with me in about a quarter of an hour.
Dr. John Lill, a former first-class cricketer and currently president of the National Stroke Foundation of Australia, says, “Immediacy of treatment is a vital element in recovery.” Apparently that quick response to the stroke was very beneficial to me.
[Anybody who watched then 66-year-old “Rocket” perform ably in an exhibition doubles with Andre Agassi, Tony Roche and John Newcombe at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Newport, Rhode Island, in 2004 wouldn’t believe the physical and mental ordeal that he overcame.]
I wasn’t aware of the vomiting on camera, but I’m glad it was tape, not a live show. But later, doctors told me that it’s a valuable tape to study – unique – because they’d never witnessed somebody actually having a stroke. I don’t want to see it. Personally I’d rather see a tape of me hitting a backhand winner.
A month after the attack, Mary told me, “It was rough on all of us. Rod, you were in intensive care for three weeks, and at least one of us [she, their son and daughter-in-law] was in there around the clock, to let you know we were there, to calm you when you were conscious. It wasn’t a great place for your 60th birthday [Aug. 9].”
There were seizures, awfully high blood pressure, a fever they had trouble controlling – 106 degrees for a few days – swelling of the brain. I had to be restrained at times, they tell me. I guess I wanted out. Sometimes I ripped out the IVs. I was rough on everybody. I do remember being aphasic, blurring, slurring words. I looked terrible, lost 30 pounds to 130. I couldn’t form words. One of the toughest was “dog.” I was like a kid again, had to re-learn to tell time, and a lot of other things.
My right side was paralyzed for a while. I had no use of the right hand. Sometimes I’d be sitting on it without even noticing. But the left was OK. They had me on a bed of ice when I had the fever and pneumonia. But the bleeding in the brain had stopped on its own without requiring surgery. Lucky. One day they sent me for a CAT scan of the brain, to see how that was going. The technician who had run it said, “Your brain? There’s nothing there.” I thought he was trying to be funny, but he meant it was blood free. That was good news. There was a lot of therapy – physical, speech, memory. Exhausting. Mary said, “The therapists were exhausted, too. Rod wore them out he was so determined to recover. They’d never worked with someone like him. His super determination as a player was showing itself.”
A couple of years later, Bud asked me how I was feeling.
“Well, I’ve got a sore knee.”
“Oh, too bad.”
“No, very good,” I told Bud, “It’s the first time I’ve had any feeling in it since the stroke.”
The muscle memory from tennis was a great help as I got my feet moving again, and my arms. I graduated from a walker and presently was able to resume tennis, golf, gardening and making public appearances.
I was nearly a scratch golfer pre-stroke. Now I’m at 10. When I was able to go onto a tennis court, hitting with Tommy Tucker, an excellent teaching pro at Mission Hills Country Club, I was able to hit for only five minutes at first. But we built up to a half-hour. Tommy was hitting balls within reach on my left side. But one day my right foot moved – a thrill –and I had more mobility. A great improvement. Mary was instrumental in getting Tommy to come every morning pick me up at our home and make sure I didn’t get into bad habits with my strokes. Tommy would tell me “You’re playing like Tommy Tucker, but pretty soon you’ll be Rod Laver, and I’ll still be Tommy Tucker.”
We were living in Rancho Mirage then, on the golf course, and I got so I could play two holes, one up and one back, using a cart and carrying a cell phone in case something went wrong. Well, something did.
My ball went into a sand trap, and without thinking I took my wedge and went after it. Trouble was I wasn’t strong enough then to walk out, and the phone was in the cart. Nobody was around, and I had a helluva time finally crawling up and out. Sand traps took on a new, hazardous meaning to me.
Speech therapy was very hard, but my therapists and I worked at it. As I got better I might utter odd words that had no relationship to anything, and Mary would say, “Where did that come from?” and we’d laugh. If it happens now it means I’m tired, and she says, “Time for a nap.”
I’m frequently asked to address stroke patients, and I’m happy to do it. I tell them, don’t accept. You’re a viable entity. Try. Work at your therapy. I hope it helps. Said Mary, “As always, Rod doesn’t take himself or his accomplishments very seriously. He remains unassuming, the humble Queensland farm boy who fell off a few horses, started out on a home-made ant bed court and was sarcastically nicknamed ‘Rocket’ by his Davis Cup captain, Harry Hopman, simply because he wasn’t. Hopman recalled he was anything but a rocket: ‘Scrawny and slow when I first saw him. But he worked at it harder than anybody else.’ “He’s the redheaded guy who slammed back when the slam of his life tried to bury him.”