The worst-case scenario for the Laver Cup—a first attempt to construct an all-star game for men’s tennis, pitting the best players from Europe against the best players from everywhere else—was that it’d end up an elaborate, expensive excuse to smush nemeses Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal onto the same team for the first time. That’s sushi-grade fan service: some hilariously stilted footage of them discussing “doubles strategy,” entertaining-if-flawed doubles play from the two greatest ever to play singles, Rafa emoting like an anxious over-caffeinated spouse during Fed’s solo match, and some indelible images that’d give even the most jaded tennis fan a little shiver:
But I didn’t expect too much more than that, and certainly didn’t dare hope for the best-case scenario: that good players would show up to the tournament in Prague, including some young ones on the come-up (Shapo, Tiafoe), and that they would actually care, and display effort, and produce quality matches across three days of doubles and singles action. That’s a way harder trick to pull off, given that the event had no affiliation with the ATP, the governing body of the men’s tour where these guys earn ranking points and big sums. This was totally external, an exhibition event fueled by Roger Federer’s agent and sports management company, some unconvincingly vague notions of regional pride (to repeat, the teams were Europe—all of it–and the World), and untold appearance fees, plus $250k a head for the winning team. And that’s all it takes, I guess! Unlike say, football, where there’s no point getting clobbered in exhibition games and endangering your livelihood, you can play low-stakes tennis pretty hard for a weekend and get on with your life and your season. For the most part, that is what these players did, and the result was better than it had any real right to be.
What really hit home is how much this sport of austere individualism misses out on the joy of team. Tennis is the lonely game, where it’s just you, your faraway box, your coach—mute, by rule—and your demons, or so goes the romantic story tennis tells itself. But at the Laver Cup there was camaraderie, bench players from World setting up elaborate meme-inspired celebrations:
There was Sascha Zverev getting some mid-game tactical advice whispered in his ear by Roger freaking Federer and Bjorn ass Borg and there was John McEnroe spouting fire, urging his players to “finish this son of a bitch off,” and his players eating it up. In tennis, flashes of colorful personality come indirectly, infrequently, demanding careful study, but in this event they came readily, constantly, and, for once, were essential to the product being sold. I wonder if the rest of tennis—assuming tennis hopes to grow fans beyond its niche—could learn something from the way this event was packaged.
The Laver Cup was far more entertaining than the Davis Cup, the international competition, partly due to the sheer talent on display (concentrated into two teams instead of spread out across all competing nations), but also because the format was built to enhance tension—super-tiebreaks instead of third sets, weird stark grayscale court, unusual camera angles—and self-consciously deliver a a fan-pleasing display. It turns out it’s easy enough to get emotionally invested in a doubles match when the players are marquee names and, in cases like friends Nick Kyrgios and Jack Sock, have some pre-existing chemistry. Kyrgios was an exemplar. The kid who can so often lose his head, and who would clearly rather be playing the 2 next to Kyrie Irving, has always performed much better when he’s accountable to people beyond himself—see his Davis Cup history—and he showed much of the same in his singles matches last weekends. But he shed actual liquid shiny tears when he lost to Roger Federer in a third-set tiebreak that would’ve given World a chance to play a deciding doubles match. Getting Nick Kyrgios to care so much about a tennis match—an exhibition tennis match—that he played hard, through nagging injury, put on a show, and even cried after loss! That might be the single most improbable feat accomplished by the Laver Cup organizers.
Across the net from Kyrgios in that final match was Federer—and that’s easily one of the most telegenic matchups in tennis right now, an offensive delight, full of lights-out serving. If you didn’t see Fed, he was keyed up like it was a Wimbledon final, fending off Nick’s threat in the second-set tiebreak, winning the third, and eventually embracing a charging Rafa, which must have felt a little bit like trying to hug an incoming freight train. When Roger says winning gave him “a feeling that was on the same level as the biggest moments in my career,” don’t bat an eye, that’s just good marketing, but holy shit did he act the part. If the act helps the sport—if tennis can be more like wrestling—then just give me more of the act, at least once in a while. Sometimes that’s an easier pleasure than invisible, interior battles. This Laver Cup thing might not count for much, but it migrates to Chicago in 2018, and assuming that some of the broken bodies get better by then, the competition will be tougher still, and it’ll be better viewing than any other tennis on TV this time next year.