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The One Thing Everyone Should Remember About the Laver Cup

Matt Zemek

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on

Laver Cup via Twitter

It has been a constant theme in tennis discussions in 2018.

It has been a rallying cry among fans of Novak Djokovic, and rightly so, given how unfair it was that Djokovic was made to play Australian Open matches in daytime heat when he could have played either under a roof or in a night session.

It has been relevant to the treatment of Simona Halep, who was made to play her French Open first-round match on Wednesday when tournament organizers easily could have adjusted their schedules to enable her to play on Tuesday. Halep was later relegated to an outside court, much as Djokovic was a month later at Wimbledon.

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This theme also came into play at the Australian Open when Halep and Caroline Wozniacki played an outdoor final in difficult weather conditions — difficult enough that Halep needed to be briefly hospitalized after the match. The women played their Australian Open final outdoors, while the men played under a roof.

What is this theme, which also came into play at the stiflingly hot U.S. Open, when players arguably shouldn’t have been forced to perform in suffocating heat and humidity?

It is simply this: TENNIS SHOULD HONOR WHAT ITS PLAYERS WANT, at least a lot more than it currently does. This is why it would be good for tennis players to form their own union. This is why tennis players deserve more of a say at the negotiating table regarding how much revenue they get at the four majors, what working conditions they play under, and so on.

Listen to the players, people say.

The players are the engine of the sport, people say.

The players’ voices need to be heard, people say.

The players deserve more power over their conditions, and more players deserve a chance to be economically protected at the Challenger Tour level, people say.

I agree. I agree with the Djokovic fans and other tennis constituencies who are right — and have been right — to question the secrecy of organizations such as Tennis Australia and their unwillingness to fully disclose the nature and extent of their investments in the Laver Cup. I agree there should be more transparency, and that the money flowing like a river through the upper reaches of organized tennis needs to reflect priorities which support professional tennis players at the grassroots levels of the sport’s structure.

I agree that Laver Cup has added something new to tennis without being a clear-cut change agent for the sport in a grassroots-oriented way. I agree that Laver Cup shouldn’t just be a private money-grab for a small and select group of people (not counting the players, who have earned their money in the first two Laver Cups).

I agree, folks. I agree that Laver Cup needs to more clearly represent a new and better way of doing things in tennis — not the event itself, but the sources of power and money behind the scenes.

I also agree that television commentators on Tennis Channel in the United States were gushing and fawning far beyond the reasonable bounds of an “in-house” TV outlet which was naturally supposed to provide positive commentary. This was more than merely “positive commentary.” Much of the commentary was hyperbolic and not rooted in fact.

Commentators on Tennis Channel said that Roger Federer’s win over John Isner on Sunday showed why he is the greatest player of all time.

Commentators noted how important this Laver Cup win was in Alexander Zverev’s career.

Yes, those and other related statements were cringe-inducing pablum, word salads with no nutritional value.

Yes, it is annoying when the media can’t exhibit proper perspective or proportion when covering an event. It is frustrating when a brand-new event is given a level of status it has not yet earned.

All of these things are true. All of them can be true…

… but they can be true WITHOUT taking away from what professional players said and did over this weekend in Chicago at the second Laver Cup.

John Isner said he and the other players are not and were not actors.

Kelsey Anderson is the wife of Kevin Anderson. Kelsey and Kevin met at the University of Illinois when she played golf and he played tennis. This was a homecoming over the weekend in Chicago for the couple. It was the kind of weekend which deserved to be seen on their terms, the way they defined the experience.

Kelsey sent a few forceful tweets on Sunday — before Kevin’s deciding singles loss to Zverev — about how insulting and rude it was to insist that the athletes were acting, carrying out a scripted drama.

The players were united in saying this wasn’t a staged performance directed by Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. The players were adamant that this event mattered to them. The winning team (Europe) formed a dogpile on the court after the last point ended. The losing team’s foremost losing players on Sunday — Anderson and Isner — were stricken in the way we expect competitors to be after absorbing tough losses.

Are we going to be honest and acknowledge what we see with our own eyes, if — of course — we watched this tournament, or do we live in a world where no visual or emotional evidence can possibly change our opinions and perceptions in any way?

The players — in their words, actions and emotions — have clearly said that in the first two Laver Cups, they really cared. This year in particular, nearly all the matches were close. Isner lost multiple matches after having HAD match point, and he won a match after being DOWN match point. Zverev was in huge trouble twice, but pulled out wins at the last instant in separate singles matches. Anderson was excellent in a win over Novak Djokovic but faltered in the final-set tiebreaker against Zverev. Federer improbably lost in doubles on Sunday after being match point up, and just as improbably won in singles hours later after being match point down.

Is Laver Cup an exhibition? Fine — I won’t argue with the claim. I will, however, note that unlike a Match for Africa charity fundraiser or other “hit and giggle” matches, the Laver Cup — for the second straight year — featured athletes who allowed themselves to feel the deep emotions generally associated with full-tilt competition.

The winners weren’t just mildly happy; they went BONKERS in their jubilation.

The losers weren’t just slightly annoyed; they felt the gut-punch weight of barely losing, again, as in 2017 in Prague.

You can hate a lot of the behind-the-scenes realities about how the Laver Cup does business in a cluttered tennis landscape which receives little streamlined regulation and is dogged by scattered, unreliable governance.

You can express legitimate — even necessary — skepticism about the larger purposes Laver Cup is serving in a tennis industry where players far too often get the short end of the stick.

You can vomit in response to the hyperbolic, hagiographic comments from commentators who irresponsibly hype Laver Cup’s significance and stature to ridiculous dimensions.

You can be a conscientious tennis fan who guards the gate and stands up for the value and importance of integrity and accountability in tennis leadership and tennis journalism.

You can be all the things you should be, all the things you feel you are supposed to be. You can boycott Laver Cup for those reasons. Point-blank: I do COMMEND YOU if you are a Laver Cup skeptic and decided to have nothing to do with the event. I really do. You are being consistent that way.

However…

If you watched the 2018 Laver Cup or followed the event with a degree of interest and noticed the flow of the various matches over the past three days — if you spent any small shred of time monitoring this event and how it evolved in Chicago — and are going to insist that the players were acting out an elaborate work of planned theater, you are plainly lying if only for this reason:

You are not believing the players.

You are not trusting that the players, the very people who deserve more of the benefit of the doubt in tennis on so many levels, are being honest.

You are not taking players — in their emotions, in their effort, in their respect for Rod Laver, in their commitment to building this event — at their word.

If you never did care what happened at this event, you can say all the bad things you want about Laver Cup. That’s fine. That’s consistent. That’s a position I can respect.

If you watched or followed this event and insist that what you saw — or what you read about on Twitter or other press reports — was staged and play-acted, you do not deserve to be taken seriously ever again.

The players, the people in tennis who deserve more support and more respect on so many levels, would not disagree with that last statement.

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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