I began to travel the world at age 17. I had hardly been with any girls, as tennis was more important. But there were times when I went on dates, whether that was in Bermuda or
Paris, wherever I might be. I had one sort of girlfriend whom I’d see in Brisbane, but she wasn’t really a girlfriend, more of a contact, really.
I met my wife, Mary Benson, in 1965 at a charity benefit in LA. I was 28. Mary was 10 years older than me, had dark hair, green eyes and a deep tan. I was shy, but she got me talking.
When we got to know each other better, she told me she had two sons, Ron and Steve, and a daughter, Anne Marie, whom I am very close to. So it was a strange one, but at the same time, I had an instant family. That was fun for me.
Mary travelled with me a fair bit. She also had a mind for business and helped with endorsements. It took a unique lady to be with me, considering how much I was competing. Our son, Rick, was born four years later.
Mary’s health problems started in 2004. She had breast cancer, then developed neuropathy, and I became her principal carer. It was tough. She took oxycodone and methadone for the burning in her ankles, feet and hands, but the pain persisted. Mary passed away in 2012. We were a good team. Our love was solid.
Margaret Court is one of the greatest players of all time: she won 62 grand slam titles. [Fellow Australian tennis champion] Frank Sedgman saw her potential as a junior, and for a year she lived with him and his wife in Melbourne. She trained hard, was the first woman player to lift weights, and performed in a different way to her rivals.
I watched Ash Barty triumph at the French Open last year. Under pressure, she played with such oomph. Then she won the biggest cash prize in tennis history [$US4.42 million for winning the WTA Finals in November]. Her opponents were very talented, but she took care of them all.
My granddaughter, Riley, is 19 and the apple of my eye. She won a scholarship to the University of Missouri and is the goalkeeper for her college soccer team. She’s doing a business degree and gets straight As.
Riley accompanied me to Wimbledon last July [where Rod was honoured with a 50-year commemorative trophy for his tennis achievements]. Prince William and Kate Middleton sat in front of us. It’s a great feeling to be in their presence. Kate is a lovely, lovely lady and a wonderful person.
I’d met William and Kate a few times, and in the Royal Box you get a chance to chat with them a little bit. They play tennis against each other; William told me he couldn’t beat her.
My girlfriend, Susan Johnson, is from Florida. She was married to the Nabisco chairman, who unfortunately passed away in 2016. The company sponsored a men’s grand prix pro event that I ran clinics for. We first met in the 1990s, then again in early 2018.
Susan was talking to a group of people, and somehow my name came up. A man didn’t believe she knew me, so she phoned me to convince him. It probably turned out to be the nicest thing that ever happened to me. We have been together ever since.
The Golden Era (Allen & Unwin) by Rod Laver is on sale now.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale January 26.