WASHINGTON, September 28, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
Throughout the tennis world, all eyes were focused on the O2 Arena in Prague last weekend for the inaugural Laver Cup. By all accounts, it was a huge success. For three days it was Europe versus the World – even, if at times, it was more like Europe versus the United States. Still, anytime you have an event where Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are included, let alone teamed as magnetic doubles partners, we’re all in.
“I could get used to playing on the same side of the net as @Rafael Nadal,” Federer tweeted after he played doubles with Nadal.
— Roger Federer (@rogerfederer) 23. September 2017
At a time when the Davis Cup has failed to adapt, innovate and simplify its format, the Laver Cup – largely the brainchild of Federer – stepped in and made a statement. From its all-star team concept to its innovative scoring – in which the point value of matches increased each day – to the pitch-black court, it seemed tennis fans liked it. So, too, did television audiences – even if it meant for U.S. viewers having to wake as early as 3:30 a.m. on the west coast to watch it. (For those of us living on the east coast, tuning in to see the early matches was still very much a breakfast affair, starting from 6:30 a.m.) Just as important, I sensed the players enjoyed participating. There was plenty of camaraderie to go around for both teams. To see Federer and Nadal cheering each other on was pure delight. And, in seeing Federer offer some very sound coaching advice to his young teammate, Alexander Zverev, suggested to me that he has a very bright future as a pro tennis coach if he wishes to pursue that avenue.
“It’s trying to thread the needle between a fun, unsanctioned event, but not an exhibition,” wrote Sports Illustrated executive editor and senior writer Jon Wertheim. “But by and large, it succeeded. The matches were entertaining. The format worked. The players were sufficiently invested. We saw – yet again – that best-of-five is an excess. The black court looked cool. Federer and Nadal playing alongside each other was tremendous.”
On the last day of competition, in which each victory was worth three points, the final match of the first Laver Cup came down to Federer facing the mercurial Nick Kyrgios, who shed his bad-boy image and seemed to embrace the team concept. The Swiss provided a nice coda for his memorable season as he won in three sets after facing a match point at 8-9 in the decisive match tiebreaker. Final score: Team Europe 15, Team World 9.
“It was a feeling that was on the same level as the biggest moments I’ve had in my career,” said Federer, following his 4-6, 7-6 (6) [11-9] victory over Kyrgios.
It prompted Christopher Clarey, tennis columnist for The New York Times, to write of Federer’s reaction: “That is a major statement from a 36-year-old champion who has won a record 19 major singles titles, an Olympic gold medal and Switzerland’s first Davis Cup.”
A Serious Competition
While the Laver Cup was technically an exhibition – after all, it offered no ATP rankings points or official tour sanctioning – it hardly seemed like one. There were capacity crowds each day and the big arena atmosphere seemed reminiscent of the ATP Finals in London.
“People were questioning if this is going to be an exhibition,” said Team Europe’s Marin Cilic, after his team swept to an early lead in first day of competition, “but for none of us this is exhibition.”
John McEnroe, the former World No. 1 and highly visible (and vocal) on the sidelines as coach for Team World – and never one for a loss of words – said of the Laver Cup: “You’ve got to be an idiot if you don’t think this is something that could be great for tennis. I can’t imagine there’s a player that played – or didn’t play, for that matter, and watched it – who wouldn’t think this is something we should be supporting.”
Imagine, what it must have felt like for the event’s youngest competitors, the 20-year-old Zverev for Team Europe, and Frances Tiafoe, 19, and Denis Shapovalov, 18, for Team World, competing in the inaugural Laver Cup. Each got a taste for what it’s like playing in front of a big, enthusiastic crowd on a big tennis stage. And, collectively, they represent the best of the #NextGenATP players.
Team Europe Too Dominant?
All of that said, I have a simple suggestion for the future. Although the next Laver Cup will be held at the spacious United Center in Chicago (home of professional basketball’s Chicago Bulls and pro ice hockey’s Chicago Black Hawks) in September 2018, it is my hope that Team World will try to be more global in its selection of players. Granted this year, Kei Nishikori of Japan was injured, Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina withdrew because he was not sufficiently recovered from the U.S. Open, and Kevin Anderson of South Africa was not available. However, each would help make Team World a more well-rounded squad to go along with Americans such as John Isner, Sam Querrey and Jack Sock, and Kyrgios of Australia. Of course, if Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are healthy, not to mention Stan Wawrinka, it’s scary to imagine the potential depth of Team Europe. Perhaps, the organizers will have to rethink the current geographical concept in order to spread out the wealth of European talent that dominates the current tennis landscape.
Although the Laver Cup came just two weeks after the conclusion of the United States Open and a week following the Davis Cup semifinals, it’s placement in an already crowded tennis calendar was welcome. For many of us who follow tennis in the U.S., the United States Open has always been a climatic peak of the season – especially in years when the U.S. has already been eliminated from the Davis Cup. So, witnessing the positive reception of the Laver Cup – whether in person or watching at home on TV – I can’t help but think that added up, it gives us all a sense of the great emotion and wonderful team spirit that often is missing in our worldwide sport. Not to mention, thanks to Federer and Nadal, there were some pretty decent feel-good moments, too.
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.