Baghdatis receives approval of greatest grand-slammer of all Richard Evans talks to Rod Laver about the rising stars - and his own recovery from illness and injury Sunday January 29, 2006 The Observer Australians don't stick your name on a massive building unless they think you are a special kind of person. And so Rod Laver's reappearance here after a long absence to grace the arena that bears his name lifted everyone's spirits almost as much as the sudden emergence of an exciting new star, Marcos Baghdatis. 'Isn't he great?' Laver says. 'We talked about Roger Federer being a breath of fresh air, but so is this kid. I love the way he measures his game, not trying for too much until he has the rally under control. In the end when he's hitting that top-spin forehand with such freedom, he looks as if he feels 10 feet tall and he makes everyone else feel that way, too.' Laver, 67, may appreciate the young Cypriot's ability to work his way into a match and keep a rein on his attacking flair because, in the beginning, that was not one of the Queenslander's strong points. Flashy, you could have called him, during those forgotten years when he lost successive Wimbledon finals, first to Alex Olmedo in 1959 and then to his countryman Neale Fraser, with whom he played golf yesterday. Laver chuckles at the memory. '"One day they'll probably go in!" was what Emmo used to say when I hit another one into the cheap seats. I used to like to give it a bit of a nudge.' Roy Emerson, winner of 12 grand-slam titles, is just one of that great line of Aussie champions who have been laughing at old tales here this past week. Frank Sedgman, Ken Rosewall, Ashley Cooper, Fred Stolle, the Wimbledon doubles winners Geoff Masters and Ross Case and several more - as good a bunch of champions as you could meet. A group of peers like that is something neither Switzerland's Federer nor Baghdatis will ever enjoy but they are already bringing so much to their sport that Federer, certainly, and maybe even Baghdatis, will join that pantheon reserved for the great. 'Baghdatis certainly seems to have what it takes,' said Laver. 'He moves so well and obviously has a great temperament. No sign of panic.' I can't remember ever having seen Laver panic because he had taken on board some typical advice from the great Lew Hoad, who in 1956 came within two sets of winning all four grand-slam titles in a year - something Laver, of course, eventually did twice in 1962 and, at the start of the Open era, 1969. 'Hoady just told me to hit the bloody thing,' Laver recalls. 'We all choke at some time or other. It's just a question of how we deal with it. Hoady said, "You can either lose the point by pushing it around hoping that you won't make a mistake or you can lose it by giving yourself a chance of hitting a winner." So I just used to go for it.' A stream of very respectable opponents will tell you that it was a hugely successful ploy, especially as Laver was the first world-class left-hander to be equipped with a top-spin backhand. The Rockhampton Rocket, they called him and everyone knew why. He is moving a little more gingerly now, having recovered from a major stroke that he suffered in 1998. He had a new hip put in three years ago and a new left knee just a few months back. Already back on the golf course, he tried a gentle jog on the beach near his southern Californian home recently and reported no after-effects. 'All the new bits seem to be working all right. I'll be back on the tennis court soon,' he says. 'I'll probably start by hitting some balls with my five-year-old granddaughter.' With his wife, Mary, having survived a year of serious illness, everything is fine with the great grand-slammer now and it is fun to see him gaze up at the huge letters that spell out his name on the side of the stadium. He shakes his head slowly in wonder. 'It's tough to believe,' he says with the modesty that was always his trademark. 'It really is.'