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Federer has Laver in his corner

Rod Laver is an elder statesman of tennis now. He is 68, lives in Carlsbad, has recovered almost fully from a stroke in 1998 and still plays enough tennis and golf to make sure somebody else buys the drinks afterward.

He has had hip and knee replacements, a problem only at airport metal detectors.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 22, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 22, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Tennis: In the Feb. 6 Sports section, a column about how Rod Laver is rooting for Roger Federer misspelled former New York Times columnist John Kieran’s name as Kiernan.

“I’m a bionic man,” he says. “Sometimes, I’ve got seven guys patting me down.”

He is revered in the world of sports, not just his specialty. And he takes it all in stride, as he always has. On a recent trip to his homeland of Australia, he was honored at a luncheon attended by an estimated 2,000, there to see Australians whose faces have been put on a special series of stamps.

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“I guess they used me because they wanted people who are still alive,” he says.

He also watched a few rounds of the recent Australian Open in Melbourne, and saw the eventual men’s champion, Roger Federer, play on the main stadium court. That’s in Rod Laver Arena.

That led to the inevitable conversation about Federer and where he fits in the discussion of “greatest ever,” a discussion that always includes Laver and usually Pete Sampras.

Laver not only likes Federer, but says the Swiss player is likely to do something this year that hasn’t been done in men’s tennis since 1969, when, well, Laver did it. Matter of fact, Laver is rooting for it.

He knows that, just as horse racing needed Barbaro, tennis now needs Roger Federer.

It needs him to deliver his sport’s Triple Crown, a Grand Slam, and with it some of the fans whose attention has wandered elsewhere. That’s a big load, but Laver thinks Federer has the shoulders. Also the game and the mind.

Federer is one-fourth there. So is Serena Williams on the women’s side, but her consistency is harder to track. This feels like the year for Federer. And the French Open is his highest hurdle.

If he gets over that, tennis will begin to reach, once again, the fan who went away once John McEnroe stopped throwing rackets and fits, and Sampras stopped serving 135 mph down the middle and following it in.

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The Grand Slam of Tennis, a phrase first used by New York Times columnist John Kiernan in 1933, means winning singles titles at the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in the same calendar year.

Three women and two men have done it. Maureen Connolly did it in 1953, Margaret Smith Court in 1970 and Steffi Graf in 1988, when she also won an Olympic gold medal and became the only person to do that. Her accomplishment is known as the Golden Slam. Don Budge completed a Grand Slam in 1938 and Laver did it twice, in 1962 and ’69.

Since Laver completed his last Slam, conditions have changed. Three of the four majors were played on grass in those days, a fast surface that Australians took to shortly after learning to walk. The French, then and now, was played on the slow red clay at Roland Garros in Paris, whereas the Australian and U.S. Opens are hard-court tournaments now.

The difference between playing tennis on grass or hard courts and on clay is like the difference between driving John Force’s top-fuel dragster and driving bumper cars at the county fair.

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The Paris clay is usually the Achilles’ heel in any Grand Slam pursuit. It is a tournament won, in the last five years, by players named Gaston Gaudio and Albert Costa, and featuring finalists named Mariano Puerta and Martin Verkerk. Some call the French tennis, others call it a sandbox.

Sampras won 14 majors, none at Roland Garros. It drove him nuts. He tried preparing a lot, then preparing not at all. He tried putting all his focus on it, then, the next year, not even giving it a thought. Nothing worked. In his best finish, he reached the semifinals in ’96, and eight of his departures were in either the first or second round.

Laver took to the clay better, although his competition may not have run as deep as Sampras’. Laver won in Paris in his Grand Slam years of ’62 and ’69 and also got to another semifinal and another final there.

Federer is on the brink. If he wins at Roland Garros this year, he will have won four consecutive majors, but not in the same year. He has won 10 majors overall, including nine of the last 13, and is only 25.

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He grew up in Switzerland, clay-court country, and has made it to the quarterfinals, the semifinals and the final last year, but has never won the French.

Laver believes in Federer’s chances at the French and his pursuit of the Grand Slam. Laver even does some “coaching.”

“I’d get over there on that clay in Europe and play and play and play,” he says. “That’s what I did and, pretty soon, you start to figure it out. You’ve got to learn how to slide on it. Federer knows how. Pete used to run to the shot, hit it and then slide. You have to slide to the ball.”

A French Open win doesn’t guarantee a Grand Slam, although Federer has not lost at Wimbledon since 2002 and at the U.S. Open since 2003.

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The French begins May 28. And before he even ponders Laver’s advice of going to Europe to “play and play and play,” Federer must fulfill ATP tour commitments that include hard-court semi-majors at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, both of which he won last year. Those eat up most of March.

That still leaves him with seven weeks for European clay events, leading into Roland Garros.

The French final is June 10, and perhaps it will be a historic day for tennis. If Federer wins, and goes on to complete the sweep at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Laver has a wish.

“I’d like to be the first one in line to shake his hand,” he says.

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Tennis wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.


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