In a tennis scheduling window between the US Open and the next most important ATP 1000 tournament of the calendar year, the Shanghai Open, the first annual Laver Cup was staged in Prague. There was some minor rumbling from the press that it might just be a glorified exhibition tournament and grousing from some ATO and tournament executives that it was stepping on the toes of a few ATP 250 events as well as reducing the Davis Cup in stature.
But being the brainchild of Roger Federer and his management group there would be no stopping it, leaving only the aftermath to decide whether or not it would come under greater scrutiny for not living up to all the hype. But “hype” is just a negative euphemism for marketing and The Laver Cup was not only extremely well marketed but it received excellent TV coverage.
First, did it live up to the “hype”? I would give that a resounding YES!
Here are a few specifics that helped to make the event successful.
The Black Court Surface
I understand that the black indoor court surface developed for The Laver Cup was no simple matter and it was worth every penny of the effort. Everyone that has ever played tennis recreationally has played on a black asphalt tennis court, as in the free courts in a city park with cracks here and there. Well the nod to the common man’s court surface may not have been intentional but it and the lighting was most effective. The players jumped off the court in a dramatic fashion which was every bit as engaging as the first matches played on immaculate Wimbledon grass.
The Net Cam
A camera was mounted on the center of the net and for those points that featured a player moving in to the net, or doubles players during a fast-paced net exchange, it was very effective. Even a big serve coming right at you and whacking the net was interesting. Best yet was that they did not overuse the net cam. In general I found it was used only when it was a more interesting viewpoint and not simply because it was there to be used.
The Teams on The Sidelines
Roger Federer was rather direct about the fact that it was up to the players to decide for themselves how much to commit to the event. He said there were no rules about them having to be present during their team member’s matches but that virtually to the man everyone was not only present but obviously engaged in the play on court. The World team was unrestrained and enthusiastic but the older Euro team was paying close attention too and Rafa in particular was very pumped up supporting his team, especially on the final day, and during Roger’s deciding match in particular.
Only the youngest players were seen with a few moments on their smart phones but even that looked more like sending info on what was going on rather than needing distraction. This helped to make the event special and highlighted the fact that most all of the matches were close and competitive.
As to the team captains, McEnroe was clearly invested in doing everything he could to secure a win for his team and from every player individually. His dialog with Sock playing Rafa and Kyrios playing Federer was most interesting. Even though I wanted to hear it all more clearly it was nice they weren’t “miked up” as that could have led to self-conscious or forced commentary.
For Borg, anyone who knows much about him would not expect much more than subtle encouragement. And after all, what is anyone going to say to Roger and Rafa during a match! Probably much wiser to let them be and keep the dialog to a minimum unless asked (which they wouldn’t be likely to do). But the occasional input from player to player on the Euro team was to the point.
Doubles Were a Featured Element
If you are a tennis fan and were not looking forward to Roger and Rafa playing doubles together then I don’t know what kind of fan you are. Whether or not it was classic great tennis is not relevant. It was the first time in both of their long careers and hard fought rivalry and did not disappoint as great theatre and a damn good time.
But of perhaps greater import was that the event intentionally featured doubles as an important component to winning the Laver Cup. Though a team can win the Cup without winning one of the three doubles matches, a tie would have been settled by a set of doubles. It almost came to that in the inaugural tournament because, in part, Rafa was surprised by Jack Sock who played great for the entire tournament. Then, a telling moment of drama was whether or not Roger would battle hard to the end or be willing to settle for a crowd favorite round of “Fedal” doubles. Happily he seemed to give it 100% and battled Kyrios to the last point making the tiebreaker unnecessary. But there is was, fans actually hoping for a doubles match!
Rafa & Roger on the Same Side of the NET
I saved this for last because it was the most obvious draw for most all tennis fans and it was great fun no matter who you might ascribe the overused G.O.A.T label to. There have been many great players that provided personality and excitement to the game but Nadal and Federer have been two of the all-time best for many years! Both of them remain a force to be reckoned with, splitting all of the Grand Slam titles between them this year. They both obviously enjoyed the event and the opportunity to play as a team, not only with each other but with and against all of the other players taking part. It would be great to see them both return for an encore next year.
In summary, the first edition of The Laver Cup certainly make Rod Laver very pleased and apparently proud to have his name associated with it. It was not just a marketing success but was a wonderful tribute to his legacy as a competitor and sportsman.
To anyone who doubts the sincerity of Roger Federer for taking the lead to put together the event or any of the top players for accepting the commitment to perform at the event … you certainly top my rather extreme degree of cynicism. Federer does not need the money and he’s already uber-famous. It is likely true that he could be the only tennis star capable of undertaking such a large and complicated project but to not acknowledge the significant risk of failure would be shortsighted.
For taking that risk (not to mention also being willing to be the last guy on court) he has entered a new level of status as a competitor and sportsman in my book. There was someone holding a sign in the crowd in Miami that said “Commit your sins when Federer is playing. Even God is busy when Roger plays.”