The Man Behind the Rod Laver Arena
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
Every year, hundreds of thousands of tennis fans flock to Melbourne Park to soak in one of tennis’ grandest tournaments - The Australian Open. Front and center is Melbourne Park’s crown jewel, the Rod Laver Arena. The arena opened on 11 January 1988 just in time for the 1988 Australian Open. Originally known as the National Tennis Centre at Flinders Park, the arena has officially changed its name twice. First in 1996, when it was known as the Centre Court, and again in January 2000 to honor Rod Laver, a three-time winner of the Australian Open and one of the world's greatest tennis players.
And that’s where our story begins, with Rod Laver. You see the stadium that attracts well over a million visitors every year is much more than just a stadium - it’s a symbol for one of tennis’ best players ever.
Before Sampras, Agassi, Federer, or Nadal there was Rodney George Laver, better known as Rod Laver. Born in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia, in 1938. Laver was the third of four children of Roy Laver, a cattleman and butcher, and his wife Melba Roffey - and tennis was the fabric that kept the family together. Laver was hooked on the game, and shortly after his 13rth birthday he was invited to attend a tennis camp that was sponsored by the Brisbane Courier-Mail newspaper. The camp was run by Australian tennis legend and Davis Cup captain, Harry Hopman, who would later go on to give Laver his famous nickname, Rocket. Hopman would later go on to say, “He was the Rocket – because he wasn’t,” Hopman said. “You know how those nicknames are. Rocket was one of the slowest kids in the class. But his speed picked up as he grew stronger.”
After a successful camp, Laver would eventually quit school to concentrate on tennis full time. After only 3 years, Laver’s risk to commit to tennis full time would pay off as he won the 1956 US junior championship. This feat was the beginning of a six year run that saw Laver win 56 amateur titles. In 1962 Laver became the first male player since Don Budge in 1938 to win all four Grand Slam singles titles in the same year - he was just 24 years old.
In 1962, after winning all four Grand Slam titles plus sealing a title for the Australian Davis Cup team - Laver turned pro, signing a reported $100,000 contract, to end his amateur career. However, upon ending his amateur status, Laver would not be eligible to compete in any Grand Slam events. That meant five (63’ - 68’) empty years away from major tournaments - the pro tour put him out of 20 grand slams from age 23 to 28. Imagine how many titles he could have won if he were permitted to play in those tournaments. When the Open Era began in 1968, Laver would waste no time claiming those titles he had previously missed out on. He won five of the first seven majors played, including his second Grand Slam in 1969 - he was only 31. And although Laver’s strangle hold on Grand Slam’s would loosen, he maintained a successful career until his retirement in 1979.
At the end of it all Laver won a record 200 tournaments, 11 Grand Slam titles in only 16 attempts, held the No. 1 world ranking from 1964-70, and had career earnings over one and a half million dollars - the first player to ever cross that threshold.
Famed tennis player Ted Schroder once said, "You take all the criteria – longevity, playing on grass and clay, amateur, professional, his behavior, his appearance – in all criteria, Laver's the best player of all time."
A namesake truly fitting for one of tennis’ grandest stages.