Federer can be ?The Greatest?: Laver - ?The backhand is his best shot as he can roll the racket over the top or hit it straight?

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By Mark Hodgkinson THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
  • Published 13.11.04
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Rod Laver was so extraordinary a tennis player that it was said he could hit aces with a frying pan. However, there was much more to his game than giving the ball a fearful clump: he also had style and grace, and is the only man to have achieved two Grand Slams.

Laver is still known as ?The Greatest?; Roger Federer is now challenging for that title. The Australian, who often called himself ?arunt?, believes Federer could instead be the greatest player to have twirled a racket. ?Oh, I would be honoured to even be compared to Roger,? Laver said.

?He is such an unbelievable talent, and is capable of anything. Roger could be the greatest tennis player of all time.? But this was not Laver?s famed modesty speaking.

Laver totally bamboozled his opponents during the racket-swinging Sixties, and is sufficiently self-aware to recognise his place in tennis history.

However, the four-time Wimbledon champion still follows the game closely, and knows real talent when he sees it on his television set. One generation was anointing another yesterday. When Federer triumphed at Wimbledon last year, his first Grand Slam title, the early transmission times did not bother Laver, now 66.

Laver would sit up in bed with the remote control and a sense of awe. He will be watching next week?s coverage from Houston, where the Swiss will complete his remarkable season at the Tennis Masters Cup, the year-end showpiece. Federer will want to win his 13th final in-a-row, a run that started in 2003. Federer, 23, has four Grand Slam titles to Laver?s 11, after winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon again, and the US Open this season.

Federer believes that he can one day win the French Open, and his ambition next year is likely to be matching that calendar sweep, which Laver achieved in 1962 and 1969. ?Roger knows that he has the shots to beat anybody,? Laver said. Laver has long lamented the lack of touch and control, ?the robots? taking over ?an increasingly one-dimensional sport?, and sees Federer as pure entertainment.

As Laver said, Federer is the one, way above all the rest, whom fans want to watch. ?The Rockhampton Rocket? had quick hands, and when a serve arrowed towards him he had five different ways of playing the return. Federer is just as quick-witted, and can improvise to great effect.

Federer?s backhand is the one that gets this aficionado purring. ?His backhand is the best shot he plays, as he can roll his racket over the top of the ball, or hit it straight. I don?t know how he manages to hit the ball so cleanly all the time,? Laver said.

Laver and Federer have the same kind of aura about them, one without the pretence or bombast of lesser players, but which only relies on their on-court mastery. Laver said that, after the racket-hurling and cursing of Federer?s juniors days, the world No.1 now has the mental approach needed to dominate the tennis world, a ?Mr Nice Guy? but with the quiet menace of his shot-making. ?He knows that he is good, but he does not shout about it,? Laver said. ?He looks calm, but I think there is fire under the surface.?

Laver would have won more Grand Slam titles if he had not been banished from the oldest tournaments for five years after turning professional before the start of the Open era in 1968. He believes that only injury or disillusionment will prevent Federer from realising his talent.

Laver does not believe that Federer needs a rivalry to sustain his enjoyment of the sport. ?He pushes himself hard anyway,? Laver said. Federer had an amicable split with Swedish coach Peter Lundgren last year, and although there are rumours that he has approached Australian Tony Rochefor a hands-off relationship, he is fast making tennis coaches unfashionable.

Laver said that Federer will prosper on his own. ?There could be a worry that Roger gets fed up with all the travel. If you have a coach then you may be pushed into more tournaments and other commitments. But Roger is free to play when he wants, so there is not the same risk of burn-out.

Laver could not stop talking about Federer. ?It seems like he has every intention of being around for a long time. If he is, he can achieve whatever he wants to achieve,? he said. ?Roger is such a great player and such a great champion. Roger could be ?The Greatest?.?