by Saqib Ali
The inaugural Laver cup held in Prague is in the books. Named after the living legend Aussie, Rod laver, the event is loosely based on Golf’s Ryder cup. Only in this instance Europe takes on the rest of the world unlike America against Europe in the Ryder cup. The event will be played annually over one weekend and first team to secure 13 points will win the cup. Each day will have three singles and one doubles match. The points awarded per win increase every day as the event progresses and the final set like the ATP doubles matches will have a 10 point tiebreaker. The event will be held in different parts of the world each year, with Chicago getting the nod to host the second edition, where team world will play hosts.The event is a brainchild of Roger Federer and his manager Toni Godsick. The Federer goodwill was on full display as these kind of roasters are not easy to line up for the first edition. That being said there must have been lot of convincing done to introduce something of this scale during the season.
The pre event promotion was gaining momentum every day this week leading into the first day of action. There were red carpet events all week long to promote this event and it seemed like no stone was left unturned with the glamorous ceremonies and gala dinners. Even the non believers like myself, who were not sure how this experimental event will fit in the tennis world, were getting curious by the hour. Purists, rightfully so will always challenge any suggestion that will attempt to tinker with the set standards of the sport. All this was good but still the seriousness of the event was in question as fans and media were undecided about the level of competition this was going to produce.
The word exhibition has been doing the rounds since the inception of this event. Exhibition in tennis is symbolic of non serious, fun loving and charity raising tennis. And rightfully so, since tennis has a very tightly scheduled calendar, which leaves no room for any new or experimental event to be included. The event of this scale needed the star power to even entertain the notion of this Laver cup idea to be a permanent fixture in the long run – which clearly seems the intention of the concerned parties so far. Players played at a very high level throughout the weekend and that itself was a much needed validation, since a very meaningful remainder of the 2017 season is still to be played. Seriousness of level of play is very meaningful in an alternate sense, because all players in action have a vested interest in terms of either qualifying for the WTF finale or getting seeded for the next major in Australia. And to do these things they have to play well in the remaining events of this year. Tennis year is centred around majors no doubt, but the entire season has meaningful connotations for prize money and ranking points. The point I am trying to make is as much as everyone loves Federer in the locker room, these players would not risk the remainder of this season for an exhibition. The players must have been compensated handsomely for this venture; as they were important stakeholders if this was a start up company. It’s a business no doubt, but the core foundational idea to honor the living legends is a noble one and this caravan of tennis can draw big crowds in most cities.
The quality of tennis was pretty high and the competition picked up intensity as the weekend progressed, and thanks to the unique scoring format, team world came really close to force a deciding doubles set; which would have been a winner take all. Federer played a very inspired Nick Kyrgios in the last match on day three with the Laver Cup riding on it. Both benches cheered their teammates on and it was a fitting match to decide the Cup, with Kyrgios leaving it all there for his team. Federer the man behind the scenes for this idea also scored the cup clinching win. This tension of this match could really rival a tour level match. This match went to the wire as the two previous Federer-Kyrgios matches have. No matter who won this match, Laver cup had clearly won as an idea for now. This battle also left the legendary Laver himself quite emotional.
The other key stakeholders in the big picture are the ATP and ITF, the governing bodies of professional tennis and their blessing is a must for this to be a meaningful and permanent fixture for future. Not sure how the two bodies were represented in Prague, but it is hard to imagine that they would see this as a parallel rebel league. Like most sporting administrations ATP holds the key in tennis for any new going concern to enter the calendar; it’s pretty simple in that regard. For this event to take place in the middle of the season, something tells me this could not have been done without a certain green light coming from the governing body of the game. I am sure we will learn more about this in the coming days as Laver cup report cards will be out in full force.
Another obvious comparison is with the ITF showcase event Davis cup, which has been around for over a century now. It is tennis’s nation vs nation event which has struggled to draw the star players commitment over the last decade or so. Unlike Davis Cup, the Laver Cup is asking for a three day commitment annually for one weekend. This event will be held at a different location every year, which will add to the overall appeal. Tennis has become more global than ever in terms of fans travel for major events all over the world. And to have a marquee event move its way around the world can be part of the mystique. Something like a world cup but much smaller. Purely on those grounds the event can be a fixture for at least few years. Of course that can also be a premature notion. Tennis will go through an identity crisis when the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic will walk away. Will those departures hurt the game? Can Laver cup be used as an additional wagon which introduces upcoming talents of Tiafoe and Shapovalov to different markets that does not host a major tennis event? Other major cities in slam hosting countries can be a venue for this event as well. This leads to the thought of Laver cup succeeding in the US. America happens to be the biggest tennis economy. To me, Americans are used to the notion of America against rest of the world or Europe and that selling point could have been better for the US markets. But on the contrary the power of tennis clearly resides in Europe and American masses have for long embraced Federer and Nadal. Chicago will be seen as the place which answers this question next year.
We are living in the most global of tennis eras where Federer and Nadal enjoy home court like support on almost every court on the circuit and that itself can draw crowds if the venues are chosen carefully. The show can get even bigger if the likes of Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori can join the roasters next year. This can be tennis’s version of a dream team road show, where a new venue is introduced every year. Of course this can all phase out as well in the long run but for now let’s acknowledge that the first step of Laver cup was an enjoyable experience. History in the making? Only time will tell. For now we can imagine the dream team of tennis’s Big 4 playing in the house that Michael Jordan made famous. That would be something!