There’s something about the modern era of tennis where we find ourselves contextualizing more than observing. Such has been the case for the Laver Cup, which recently ended its second edition in Chicago. I don’t know that the U.S. version of the event would convert any Laver Cup skeptics, but for those who liked the first one, the second one delivered as well. Here are my observations:
1. The teams were well-chosen.
The key to the event is the selection of the players. This year’s event did a nice job of mixing newcomers who kept the event fresh with returning players, who were able to bring a team spirit to their respective sides. Much of the attention this time went to the inclusion of Novak Djokovic, who is more frenemy to Roger Federer than BFF (especially when compared to Nadal). Not only did having Djokovic attend guarantee strong attendance and more credibility to the event, but it added the wrinkle of seeing how the two great champions on Team Europe would interact, given their frosty relations in the past — while it wasn’t the lovefest that was Fedal, it was fascinating to see them respect and somewhat enjoy each other’s company. What is overlooked, though, is the savvy in constructing the rest of both teams. The addition of Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin to Team Europe lowered the average age somewhat from last year’s outing, and gave the team a different energy. Nonetheless, Sasha Zverev remained the baby of the team, and found himself on the receiving end of plenty of advice throughout.
But perhaps the real victory is in the selection of Team World. While it was disappointing not to see Juan Martin del Potro, Kevin Anderson was a fantastic choice — both because of his excellent play and because he has posted extremely impressive results over the past 12 months and gave Team World a real chance at winning the event. Similarly, Diego Schwartzman brought heart and competitiveness to his match, and a sense of humor about his twin, John Isner. The stalwarts from last year, Isner, Jack Sock, Francis Tiafoe and Nick Kyrgios brought their own camraderie and spirit to the event, and I still believe that they are the main reason the event has been so compelling. It would be easy to come into an event where the other team is, on paper, so heavily favored, and phone it in, but these guys have brought an intensity that one wishes they could bottle up and take with them the rest of the year.
2. The Chicago crowds were fantastic.
That isn’t to say that the Prague crowds weren’t welcoming, but this year’s crowds genuinely gave Team World a home court advantage, in a way that wasn’t guaranteed with Federer and Djokovic on the other team. The energy the crowd brought to the event brought an edge to the matches that was enjoyable. Also, seeing tennis in such a storied venue, with championship banners filling the ceiling, and five NBA Championship trophies on display in the venue as well was a such for any sports fan, which surely includes all of the players.
It was also heartening to see how many people traveled from all over the world to see this event. One hopes that Geneva will draw a similarly international crowd, and one that supports Team World reasonably well.
3. The format works.
Especially when you look at the imbalance of the teams on paper, the increasing point value of the matches makes sense. Not unlike in tour events, it really was a few points here and there that made the difference. If Isner had won his matches against Federer and Zverev, and he easily could have, it would have been an easy win for Team World. I also appreciated that after Team Europe clinched the event, there was no fourth match that day. A smart choice to end the event on a high note and avoid potential injuries to the players in the dead match. Besides, no one who was in attendance on Sunday would feel shortchanged in the amount or quality of the matches they saw.
4. There’s still room for improvement.
In no particular order, the Laver Cup folks should look into the following: dedicated live stream of the team benches and get a camera sponsor for that, more merchandise stands on the grounds — at least 3 total during the event if it’s at a major US/Canada venue, giving the alternates more to do — Jeremy Chardy was fantastic and enthusiastic on the bench for Team Europe, adding a page of GIFs people can use in real time or tweeting them out quickly (the multimedia team is seriously on point, so this shouldn’t be tough for them), rotating the commercials they play during the breaks (we got to listen to Borg talk about Chic-aw-go about eleventy gazillion times, maybe also have one with McEnroe wanting to get revenge).
This event gets so much right, especially on social media, but these players and coaches are a treasure trove, so it wouldn’t be hard to get some funny stuff out there — split screens of McEnroe/Borg coaching breaks, a counter of Borg speaking during the matches, counting the languages the players on Team World speak to each other in, not to mention some behind the scenes stuff from the practice week before. There’s no shortage of good material.
5. There’s a lot, A LOT, about the Laver Cup that is really good.
It’s funny, so much of the coverage begins or ends with the idea that this event is meaningless because it’s not a tour event. Or with finding other things to critique — the color of the court, the fanciness of the sponsors (which, please, this is a sport where Rolex, Emirates, various financial services companies, Mercedes, and Porsche are regular event sponsors, and the Koch Brothers buy TV ads — so it’s a little late to worry about elitism), ticket prices (high but so are Slam and Masters 1000 tickets), the format, and just about anything else. For some, it’s resistance to change, and for others, it may be a distaste for Federer and the image (and fans) he brings to the sport. For others, it’s another instance where the haves get a lot richer at the expense of lower ranked players who don’t get to play Laver Cup. Fair enough.
But lost in the critique is that this event, like it or not, has galvanized the attention of tennis fans in a way that few new events manage to, and even established events would love to bottle up some of that energy. For those who are reluctant to assign “meaning” to such a new event, let’s not forget that tournaments have gone up and down in prestige, even in the last 20 years. What has meaning in the tennis calendar is both historical and random — e.g. the Slams are now the gold standard, but for many years, when the top players were largely American and British, few played the Australian Open, and it lost cachet in the 80s and 90s, before it revamped its event, and also due to Pete Sampras’ chase of Roy Emerson’s 14 Slams. Similarly, the Masters event was a huge event in the ATP calendar for many years, with a meaning that isn’t quite captured by the ATP Finals even to this day. One could easily imagine that the Italian Open would have more standing if there had been more Italian champions, the way there were American and British ones in the early days of the game. Heck, even the Olympics, the OLYMPICS, weren’t that big a deal to tennis players until the current generation. There’s a lot more flux in what has meaning than one would think.
The metric that matters the most to me is this — the players who were there were 100% invested in the outcome — even Federer, who some might argue would be better off if the event went down to the wire was 100% trying to win the first two matches on Sunday and heavily supporting Zverev against Anderson, even when that meant that Kyrgios/Djokovic would be scratched. This isn’t to say that the Laver Cup will supplant other events in the calendar, but it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. And, given the flux in the existing ATP team events, there’s no reason to think the Laver Cup won’t hold its own as long as it can get player buy-in.
It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the event. One has to imagine that Federer will continue to play a significant role in the event for as long as he is playing, and it may even encourage him to extend his career. Already, the organizers have decided to play in the Olympic years after all, likely to avoid a grab for their weekend in the calendar by the revamped Davis Cup, the World Team Cup and whatever other Laver Cup-inspired event comes along. And, as long as there is the financial means to do so, they will continue to be able to attract top players to play. Whether there’s a WTA analog to the Laver Cup or a combined event, surely someone at Team8 or elsewhere has to be thinking about how to extend the franchise to include women. But, for now, at least, the Laver Cup has easily succeeded in the challenge of repeating its success of last year — the only question now is, when will Team World win?