It’s not an easy thing to start an institution. The choice seems to be between presumptuousness or high-handedness, and sometimes both. After all, if someone told me today that they were going to judge who the greatest tennis player in the world was based on a small tournament at a private club where last year’s winner only has to play one match to retain his title, I would scoff at it. And, if you told me that four similar tournaments in England, France, Australia (where no one actually could go because air travel wasn’t that common), and the United States would be the arbiters of greatness in a sport, I would decry the unfairness of a system that leaves out many of tennis’ greatest powers — Czechoslovakia, Spain, and Russia, just to start.
But, we’ve come to accept those things. Granted, those tournaments weren’t exactly foisted upon a too-full tennis schedule, nor were they festooned in high end sponsorships and stark, grandiose logos. But, for as much as tennis has always celebrated its traditions, it’s also benefited from innovation. Everything from shorts to tiebreaks, to professional players to the (still somewhat maligned) match tiebreak in doubles was new at one point. And, to that end, the Laver Cup seems to fit right in.
Roger Federer and Co. had to thread the needle in formulating this event. After all, there are plenty of exhibition-type events to entertain and often to raise money for good causes. And there are team competitions out there — the Hopman Cup for those more inclined towards entertainment, Team Tennis for those wanting to reach out to young people and new audiences for tennis, and the Davis Cup for people who don’t want to be entertained at all. Really, not at all. I jest, sort of.
But, let’s get down to it. There was a time when the Davis Cup was the top achievement in tennis — many players wouldn’t even consider themselves great without one on their resume. Indeed, the Mousquetaires, still arguably the heroes of French tennis (not including she-ro, Suzanne Lenglen, of course) were known primarily for their Davis Cup wins together. But tennis has changed a lot in the intervening century — it has become, for better or worse, much more individualistic. Not only have team competitions like the Davis Cup dwindled in popularity, even doubles has much less cachet than it used to. The common denominator in all of this is, of course, the growing popularity and demands of singles careers. Top men’s* singles players simply are not willing to risk injury or even wear and tear to commit themselves to much outside of the singles tournaments, except in Olympic years where they all play some obligatory Davis Cup matches to retain eligibility to compete in Olympic doubles. In recent years, Davis Cup success depends less on the actual quality of players hailing from a certain country than on which players make themselves available to play. More than once, a defending champion has bowed out early the next year, because its top players are not willing or able to spare the time or risk wear and tear or injury to pursue another Davis Cup.
But, there is an appetite for team competition out there, but the trick is to have top players participating to gain both player support and fan support. And this is where many will find fault with Federer and Co. — they’ve designed a high end looking (and costing) event, cherry picked the top players, and declared it to be an important part of the calendar. Fair enough, but, Federer has little to gain from this event, at least in the short term. He could have easily taken his sponsors and barnstormed through another continent as he did with Gilette in South America. If he had done that, he probably would have avoided the time he is surely going to spend in Mallorca repaying some favors over the next few years (and don’t be surprised if he suddenly plays a lot in Scotland).
The issues plaguing Davis Cup that needed to be addressed were: hold the event in a reasonably short time frame, minimize the wear and tear on players while maximizing excitement, get player buy in. These are all things that the ITF could and should have addressed within the last decade — but tennis’ turf battles often stymie its progress, as seems to have been done here. While it’s fair to feel bad for ATP 250 level tournaments that might (and I say MIGHT, because even I wasn’t planning on watching Metz this weekend, were you?) have lost audience share this weekend, the ITF is not an organization I spend much time pitying, and, I would argue, neither should you.
So, scheduling and format were easy enough to solve — a long weekend, best of three sets with the third being a 10 point match tiebreak. Both workable, and not so novel as to move into Team Tennis territory. The last piece was the hardest — player buy in.
If you caught any of today’s matches (and any of Team World’s soon-to-be-viral reactions), the Laver Cup organizers can be satisfied that the players are on board. It was a deft bit of planning that helped get there — first, Rod Laver himself is not a figure any player (or commentator) would easily disparage. His importance to the game — for which he was barely compensated during his playing days — is unquestioned. And bringing in Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe smartly nods to tennis’ heydey, especially in the United States, and brings with it one of the most omnipresent voices in tennis — John McEnroe. Say what you will about McEnroe (lord knows I have), but he is not one to compete halfway — so his participation would ensure that this would be more than a hit and gigglefest.
But, perhaps the best bit of planning was the part that was least planned. Due to injury or timing, Team World lost some of its more senior selections (Juan Martin del Potro, Milos Raonic), and came to Prague with a decidedly youthful and less experienced look with Francis Tiafoe, Dennis Shapovalov, Jack Sock, John Isner, Sam Querrey, and Nick Kyrgios. And, it has contrasted with the stacked team of Federer/Nadal/Berdych/Cilic/Zverev/Thiem fielded by Europe. Team World has come into this event a huge underdog, but that has given them a lot more enthusiasm and fight to try to hang in, so far. Granted, the reported $250,000 per player winning bonus may also have a role, but I’m sure that beating the Goliath of Team Europe is also plenty motivating.
Day one was certainly a showcase of youth — and a 3-1 margin for Team Europe. But, the matches themselves were hotly contested, with more tiebreaks than seemed statistically likely. To my eye, it didn’t have the look of an exhibition, where there’s an unspoken agreement to let it go three sets, but opinions may vary. While Team World didn’t win any of its singles matches, the spirited performances of Tiafoe in a tight loss to Cilic and especially Shapovalov, who saved four match points before capitulating in a second set tiebreak to Sasha Zverev. The one match that Team World seemed to have a chance at winning, on paper, at least, was John Isner’s match against Dominic Thiem, but the young Austrian turned in a stellar day of returning and snatched that point away as well. It was a bit of a surprise that the only match featuring Rafael Nadal was he point that Team World managed to earn, but Jack Sock is one of the world’s best doubles players, and Nick Kyrgios thrives in team formats and against top players. And, even though that match got a little silly with Kyrgios’ penchant for tweeners and his team’s antics in the lounge, it was understandable — I was feeling silly after watching tennis for the better part of 10 hours, so I can understand if the players were too. But, all in all, the matches have been far more compelling and competitive than most matches I’ve seen in the existing team formats. That is pretty significant.
That said, the moments that will likely live on from today are the moments of camraderie — whether it’s the numerous glimpses of Federer and Nadal chatting away, Nadal getting fired up during other people’s matches, the Team World reactions, Federer offering his advice to Zverev during the Shapovalov match, or McEnroe encouraging the young Canadian as he continued to fight. While I actually found the visuals of the court and the setting quite compelling in person, there’s a bit of an aggressive “this is important” vibe to all of it (there’s a tendency that way with Federer’s sponsorship deals). But, seeing the teams coalesce and players all dig in has made the event start to live up to its branding. The verdict is out on how long the event can persist once Federer and Nadal stop playing (it), but, if today’s any indication, the kids might be willing to keep it going.
*Note that more top women players have made themselves available to play Federation Cup, as evidenced by the recent dominance of the Czech Republic and the participation of many of its top players. I would aver that best of three format plays a part, but understanding the difference requires much more analysis.