Observations from a feel-good weekendEmbed from Getty Images
Among tennis die-hards, Laver Cup, the now five-year old competition spearheaded by Roger Federer and his Team8 management company, tends to inspire a lot of discussion — is it a real competition? Does it take away from regular tour events? It is too expensive/flashy/showy? What about women players? Can such lopsided teams actually generate a real competition?
Starting with the last question first, the results in London seem to answer the question with a resounding yes. After all, the 2022 edition of the Laver Cup featured a Team Europe consisting of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray, along with world number two Casper Ruud and recent slam finalists Stefanos Tsitsipas and Matteo Berretini (as well as British number one Cameron Norrie who joined as an alternate). And they lost to Team World, which included a credible but far less accomplished team of Felix Auger-Aliassime, Taylor Fritz, Francis Tiafoe, Diego Schwartzman, Jack Sock, Alex de Minaur, and Tommy Paul. Granted, at this event, Federer was literally on the verge of retirement due to recurrent and not yet resolved knee issues, and the rest of the Big Four were dealing with injuries and/or lack of recent play. Nevertheless, the format of the event ensured that even with a four point deficit after two days of play, Team World was able to surge to victory by claiming all of the matches played on Sunday. While this put a damper on the Federer retirement party, a fifth straight win by Team Europe would have given fuel to those who find the event too exhibition-like to take up its spot on the calendar (and its support from the USTA and Tennis Australia).
But focusing on this definitional issue obscures many of the good things that Laver Cup is. There is a tendency, especially in the United States, to market tennis around its “bad boys” — McEnroe and Connnors, and, more recently, to offer clips of tantrums and racquet smashing to entice outsiders to watch. Laver Cup upends that model, focusing instead on, as it says, turning rivals into teammates, and showing the camaraderie of players who find themselves sharing strategy rather than trying to beat each other.Embed from Getty Images
And it must be said that the packaging of the event, from the social media team to the visuals of the black court with the team colors to the presence of celebrities like Anna Wintour and Tom Hiddleston, is tailor made for modern tennis audiences who are more likely to consume the sport online and to share highlights on social media. The fact that the players have so readily bought into the competition and treat it as seriously as any other tour event makes this a compelling tennis weekend, providing total immersion for die hards and novel insights into the personalities of the players for everyone. Best of all, the three days show tennis players as tennis fans, watching their teams play right in front of and just like the audience.
It is hard not to analyze Laver Cup without reference to its driving force, Roger Federer. It often feels like much of the criticism leveled at the event is the same as what Federer himself has faced over the years — too much luxury branding, especially. But it is worth noting that Federer has enough drawing power to stage exhibition tours himself with a few supporting players, which would be a lot less commitment and be plenty lucrative. Instead, he chose to use his market power to create an event that honors the history of the game, shares some of the wealth with players past (Laver himself as well as the captains of both teams) and present, who are generally happy to have the chance to play the event and are treated well by tournament organizers.Embed from Getty Images
The London edition of the competition will largely be remembered because it was the site of Federer’s emotional farewell to the sport that he has helped mold over the past two decades. The leadup to the event featured a once-in-a-lifetime practice session featuring Federer and Nadal on one side of the court and Murray and Djokovic on the other. But it was Federer and Nadal’s bromance that captured the hearts of many, as the last day of Federer’s career found them joking around in practice, reacting hilariously to the play of their teammates, and eventually, breaking down in tears as Federer’s career ended when they lost their doubles match to Jack Sock and Francis Tiafoe.Embed from Getty Images
Of course Federer’s absence from the roster will be a challenge for the event going forward. A simple look around the stadium or the merchandise booths (which largely sold out of the RF branded merchandise before the matches even started on Friday), shows that Federer is a significant draw for audiences, and his absence will leave large shoes to fill and a challenge for organizers to keep recruiting top players and keeping them engaged. And, after five years of experience, there are tweaks that could be made — for example, dedicated camera feeds on the bench areas so fans can get more of the team interactions that make the event so unique, and including a skills competition as a substitute if all the matches are not needed.
But the largest question is how to include women players in this event. This is absolutely an event that would thrive with female players — but I do think that the “rivals become teammates” aspect is best observed when the teammates are actually each others’ rivals. Imagine if we got to see Maria Sharapova advising Serena Williams during a match, or Ash Barty advising Naomi Osaka? There is no reason that the Laver Cup model could not succeed with all female teams. And seeing Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert face off as captains is TV gold. Just ask SNL. And it would also be compelling to see mixed gender events — as we already see from the mixed-gender United Cup that was announced for 2023. While not all of these events need to made in the image of Laver Cup, the tennis calendar could use more events that celebrate the sport and humanize its participants, and Laver Cup scores 100 on both those counts.