What do Rod Laver and Grant Connell have in common?
Besides being left-handed tennis players, that is.
A lot, actually, even if you already know that the tie that binds them is Vancouver, Canada’s third largest city, which just happens to be the site of the 2023 Laver Cup.
Let’s start at the beginning, with a living tennis legend who needs no introduction: Rodney George Laver.
He may have retired 43 years ago, but his name comes up whenever an ATP heavyweight tries to secure a Calendar Slam—something that hasn’t been done since the tremendously talented Rocket Rod Laver made it happen not once but twice.
And since 2017, his name has come up even more often with the launch of the Laver Cup: the entertaining and prominent competition that bears his name.
In 2023, the sixth Laver Cup will make its Canadian debut, and Rod himself will be in Vancouver for the third time.
Rewind to the 1970s
Rod Laver competed in Vancouver twice in his career. In 1970 and 1971, he was one of the stars of the World Championship Tennis (WCT) circuit.
He played in the Rothmans Canadian Open when the indoor event was held at the Vancouver Agrodome, which could host up to 5,000 spectators.
In his very first appearance at the tournament in early October, the Rocket battled his way into the final and absolutely crushed his eternal rival and fellow Aussie Roy Emerson (6-2, 6-1, 6-2). The two then teamed up to take the doubles crown.
That year, Laver became the first player in the history of the sport to collect more than $200,000 in prize money.
In 1971, Laver came back and doubled down on the doubles title with Emerson but couldn’t do it in singles.
So, that’s the first connection.
Let’s keep Rod Laver in the locker room for a few minutes and get to Grant Connell.
Despite our tremendous respect for Vasek Pospisil, who’s been the face of western Canada for the past 12 years, he was preceded by a man who was literally the Mr. Vancouver of tennis.
Between 1986 and 1997, Connell had a brilliant career. He was World No.1 in doubles (November 1993) and won no less than 22 ATP titles, including four with fellow Canadian Glenn Michibata.
He reached the semis of all four Slams and the finals in Melbourne (1990) and at Wimbledon (1993, 1994, 1996).
With Patrick Galbraith, one of the five partners he competed with, Connell raised the doubles trophy at the season-ending ATP Tour World Championships in 1995.
When he retired in 1997, he held the Canadian Davis Cup record of 22 wins and went on to captain the squad from 2001 to 2004.
Simon Larose and Grant Connell, Maastricht, Netherlands, 2004 (photo: AP)
That’s all great, but what does it have to do with Rod Laver?
Let me explain.
The year was 1995. Grant Connell had a lot of Australian friends. He once jokingly said he hung out with more Australians than Canadians on the Tour.
“I was at the Italian Open practicing with John Fitzgerald and another Australian, probably Pat Rafter. Rod Laver came to the court and said: ‘Hey guys, do you mind if I hit with you?’. And, so, I got to hit on the same court as Rod Laver, which was just a highlight reel.”
Laver was the guest of honour at the tournament in Italy, but, according to Connell, the Rocket was humble, affable and exceedingly likeable.
“The epitome of a class act,” he said.
When Connell suffered a stroke in February 2020, he received countless messages of encouragement including one from Rod, who’d heard the news and remembered the Canadian player.
“A member of his club in Newport Beach, California, must have mentioned it to him, and he wrote me a nice email. Rod had a stroke in 1998. In his message, he gave me a few suggestions, like tips to recover. I wouldn’t say Rod Laver and I are close friends, but he’s just a class act.”
For more on Grant Connell, I recommend this touching piece by Tom Tebbutt, who stopped by for a chat with him during Billie Jean King Cup last April in Vancouver.
Major impact for Vancouver
When asked about the Laver Cup coming to Vancouver and BC, Grant Connell doesn’t hesitate. “The format is brilliant. You get the best of the best. Even if one team has a bad day, there’s no bad day for spectators. There are so many players who are fun to watch, and that’s why I think the Laver Cup is perfect.”
Connell will likely be invited to take part in the activities surrounding the Laver Cup and perhaps even a pre-match ceremony. Still, the former champion remains as humble as ever.
“The Laver Cup is far bigger than a regional or a provincial event, but if they’re kind enough to give me a ticket, sure, I’ll be there!” he said with a laugh. “Seriously, if I can help sell it—and I have a few specific ideas—I’d be honoured. I want it to be a success as a fan and as a BC resident. Vancouver has the potential to be a great tennis city. It’s matured a lot and has the potential to be a perfect fit for the Laver Cup.”
And how about WTA and ATP 250 and 500 tournaments?
“We’ve been having conversations since around 1997, but that implies having numerous courts or venues and all kinds of other things. But the Laver Cup format fits pretty well in Vancouver. For recurrent events, I don’t know,” he shared.
Earlier on, I wrote that Rod Laver played in Vancouver twice. I should have said he travelled there twice and played there three times.
Fans may remember that, in 1970, he competed in an exhibition match against another Australian great, John Newcombe, on a court in magnificent Stanley Park.
David Cox remembers
If you remember the Laver–Newcombe showdown in Vancouver, you’re not alone. So does David Cox: “I wasn’t there, unfortunately, but I saw a picture. Laver was surrounded by a bunch of juniors. Mark Roberts, who was in charge of Tennis BC, was there.”
An excellent tennis player himself, the sports psychologist was part of Canada’s Davis Cup team for a long time (24 times), including the years Daniel Nestor and Sébastien Lareau were on the squad.
He was also a key member of Grant Connell’s team and travelled with him around the world.
On June 9, Cox was inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame, and it was none other than Grant Connell who presented him with the honour.
Cox didn’t watch Laver’s victory in the 1970 final over Emerson, but he was at an earlier match in which Laver was up against another top player and yet another Australian: Ken Rosewall.
“I was 23 at the time. That’s was unbelievable. I think Rod Laver won something like 6-1, 6-1. And I thought, ‘Man, that’s, like, the best match I’ve ever seen from a human being in my life.’”
David Cox is delighted a major tournament will be held in his city. Along with the annual National Bank Open in Montréal and Toronto, the competitions are meant to inspire young players. That’s exactly how he got into tennis.
“I remember being 11 or 12 years old, and guys like Pancho Gonzalez, Lew Hoad, Barry MacKay and Butch Buchholz played at the Kerrisdale Arena in Vancouver. I was actually a ballboy, and I remember one match during which there was a break in the action, and Butch Buchholz asked me if I wanted to play. Because I was young, I had no fear, and I jumped on the court and played two games against Buchholz. I’ve never forgotten that,”recalled Cox.
“It provides people, including kids like I was, with an opportunity to see the best players in the world. I decided to play when I saw Rosewall and Laver and Newcombe and those guys. And at the time, there wasn’t much tennis on TV. We didn’t follow Wimbledon or Roland-Garros for ten hours a day on five different courts. We listened to Wimbledon on the radio in those days. When we saw those guys live, we could see how good they were.”
David Cox is thrilled that Vancouver will host the prestigious competition.
“And suddenly the Laver Cup is coming to Vancouver. Well, it’s an event that could change the complexion of tennis in British Columbia because there could be young kids of seven, eight, nine or ten years old who decide to play professionally. Just like the Canadian tennis player who once came to me and said that what got him excited was watching Danny Nestor upset the great Stefan Edberg, one day in 1991, in a Davis Cup match in Vancouver.”
That says it all.
Let’s hope the next 14 months go by quickly.