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Laver Cup might be polarizing, but it offers important lessons

Matt Zemek

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Pierre Lahalle of Presse Sports for USA TODAY Sports

You’re not less of a tennis fan if you hate the Laver Cup. I won’t tell you that you need to love it or watch it, either. I WILL say that important lessons can be learned EVEN IF you don’t care about this tournament.

I said on our most recent podcast at Tennis With An Accent (the links are provided below, at the end of this piece) that I was less drawn to Laver Cup this year because of the Nick Kyrgios situation (not being suspended for what is now an event affiliated with the ATP Tour) and the move to retroactively award ATP wins to the players who won matches in 2017 and 2018.

Laver Cup became, in 2019, another manifestation of the problems and inconsistencies prevalent in tennis governance. It became another manifestation of tennis’s inability to enforce rules and proper discipline… and none of this includes the clearly mishandled situation on Sunday, in which Team World was not given the proper ability to choose matchups, which it should have been given.

The rules for the 2020 event in Boston will change, but come on — why was the rule structure that weak and ineffective in the first place?

Laver Cup is fairly and legitimately seen by a lot of people (Novak Djokovic fans in particular) as an embodiment of the conflicts of interest which run through tennis. I understand that view and acknowledge its value.

However: This doesn’t mean Laver Cup is a worthless event with nothing to contribute to the sport.

In fact, after 2019 once again hit all the targets in terms of drama, theater, suspense, storylines, and the emotional experience of everyone in Geneva’s Palexpo arena, it is more clear than ever that Laver Cup has added something visible and tangible to tennis.

No, it is not the experience of players cheering on teammates — Davis Cup offered that for over a century.

The new components of Laver Cup which have so clearly added something valuable to the tennis scene are evident EVEN if you didn’t watch over the weekend, and even if you rightly note the conflicts of interest behind the scenes.

Number one: The biggest names in the sport are gathered in one place at one time. Davis Cup has at times done that, but it doesn’t guarantee it. Laver Cup does — not all big names, but enough of them to get the attention of the outside world.

Seeing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal act like your friends in a pub watching international football is not only GIF-able and an instant meme, but it humanizes athletes and reveals a side of them not ordinarily seen in regular tour competition.

Lots of fans embrace that and connect with that. It is unambiguously great for tennis to have that fresh space and unique emotional tenor at least once a year. People come into my Twitter mentions every year to tell me they set aside time for Laver Cup which they don’t necessarily set aside for non-major tour events.

Even when Roger Federer retires as a player, you KNOW he will either coach Team Europe or have a managerial role in the tournament which keeps his presence as a magnet to attract other top players. The idea that Laver Cup is going to flame out when the Big 3 retire seems LESS likely now, rather than MORE.

This event has built not only an identity, but a developing consistency, which resonates to an appreciable degree.

What else is unique about Laver Cup? It takes tennis to cities which don’t always get tennis. Geneva is actually an exception to this, since it does have a pro tour stop, but Boston does not have a regular tour stop, and it will host the 2020 event. Prague and Chicago do not have ATP Tour stops.

Hopefully the 2022 event — held outside Europe — will take tennis to South America or India.

What else should be said about Laver Cup, and what makes it a distinct tennis experience?

This might seem like a deceptively simple answer, but tell me that I am wrong: Laver Cup is FUN.

Alexander Zverev — who won the Laver Cup for Europe for the second straight year — actually ENJOYED PLAYING TENNIS.

He was ushered into a different competitive space compared to the slog of the normal tour. Being a teammate of Federer and Nadal and the rest of Team Europe animated him and his game in ways we had not previously seen in 2019.

Yes, this was serious competition, but this 2019 Laver Cup and all three editions have given us three-day weekends in which top tennis players have laughed, joked, cheered, and gotten very nervous, just like fans. It is all very relatable, but beyond that, it reminds players that competition is supposed to be fun.

Seeing Alexander Zverev embrace this moment yet again at Laver Cup offered a welcome contrast to the misery of his tour experience this year. We don’t know if this will liberate Zverev’s game, but it has at least reminded the German that tennis doesn’t have to be soul-crushing. It can be joyful.

That is exactly what he needed… so it’s very positive the sport has this space, this unique context, in which to give prominent players a chance to hit the reset button as Zverev did against Milos Raonic, in their first match since the Australian Open in which Raonic prevailed.

Finally — and as a way of combining a lot of the things I have written about above — the Laver Cup’s emphasis on fun shows that being a “bad boy” doesn’t have anything to do with an entertaining experience for fans.

Yeah, there were a few racquet slams and expressions of disappointment over the weekend in Geneva, but the spirit of competition fostered by the Laver Cup is strongly and consistently positive. The presence of teammates — and coaches — at courtside won’t allow players to descend into ugly and prolonged tantrums of stormy behavior.

This was a weekend for healthy competition in a context of positive encouragement and mutual support.

It showed — rather conclusively, in my opinion — that the bad-boy antics of Nick Kyrgios are completely irrelevant to a fan’s experience of tennis as entertainment.

Nick Kyrgios’s TENNIS is what is entertaining about him. His behavior is not.

The first two years of Laver Cup — particularly 2017 in Prague — showed that when Kyrgios is part of a team, all his good dimensions are magnified and his bad elements are subdued, a great thing for tennis.

The 2019 Laver Cup went one step beyond that: With Kyrgios being completely absent from Sunday’s final matches due to injury, the reality that Laver Cup remained every bit as compelling and dramatic should not be lost on people.

This event did not need Nick Kyrgios to remain interesting and involving.

After all the conflict generated by the poor and inappropriate decision to allow Kyrgios to compete in an ATP-affiliated event, how peRFect is it that Kyrgios was absent from the climactic day of the 2019 Laver Cup… and the event went along just fine without him?

The Laver Cup does have its problems and flaws, as shown above. Administratively and in terms of transparency (where profits and resources go), Laver Cup can and should do more to help tennis in the right ways. I have not swept Laver Cup’s problems under the rug and do not intend to do so.

Yet, an event can have its problems and flaws and still be a net positive for tennis. It can emphasize fun in a positive context. It can bring tennis to cities which don’t ordinarily see top tennis players. It can humanize star athletes and make them more relatable to fans.

It can show that bad-boy behavior isn’t needed to create top-class entertainment.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Laver Cup, even if — perhaps even ESPECIALLY — you don’t watch the event.

Keep that in mind when my colleague, Saqib Ali, attends the 2020 event in Boston, a short drive from his home in Massachusetts.

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Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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