Laver Cup’s team spirit pushes players above and beyond
Team sports thrive when the performance of the unit exceeds the sum of its parts, and the Laver Cup proved to be no exception. From meals and meetings to the bench and the court, both Team Europe and Team World thrived in the presence of their peers – and perhaps will leave Prague as better players.
Plenty has been made of the camaraderie within the camps, particularly that of the effervescent Team World, but there have also been hints of what happens when you put some of the finest tennis minds of a generation – or two – on the same side of the net.
“Obviously in Grand Slams you are there on your own,” said Marin Cilic, winner of the first match at this inaugural Laver Cup for Team Europe. “Over here is more a team. Team is in the first spot as a priority – everyone together, practicing, exchanging some experiences and discussing what is best.
“For me, it was a pleasure to spend time with these great guys. You can learn a lot – you can see what the guys are doing, what are their routines, how they are dedicated every single day and in every single way. We are talking a lot about the matches, talking about tactics – it opens your mind to different ideas for the game.”
Indeed, while the cuts between points to the Team World bench has delivered an endless supply of meme-friendly mimes, shots of the non-playing members of Team Europe have often shown players passing on little nuggets of information between one another. The men in red demand the camera; the boys in blue deserve a microphone.
“To have an absolute legend on the bench with me, and then I got advice from Roger and Rafa, I mean, you cannot be higher in tennis,” said Dominic Thiem, who had a combined total of 46 Grand Slams chipping in with advice during his showdown with John Isner. For the most part, Borg has been the silent partner, a calming influence on the Team Europe bench. “With Bjorn, we have a lot of peace on the bench, no?” said Nadal with a smile.
Borg’s opposite number, John McEnroe, has been anything but quiet on the Team World bench, a welcome voice for a young squad who have grown up watching US team sports. The language has sometimes verged into the industrial, but Jack Sock wasn’t complaining – indeed, the 25-year-old believes tennis must embrace the chance to shake its typically genteel image.
“Everyone likes to think tennis is a gentleman’s sport, a country club sport, that you have to be very proper and respectful – yeah, that’s awesome. But I think the guys on our team actually feed off that as well,” Sock said when asked about McEnroe’s demand that he ‘finish this son-of-a-bitch off’ after levelling up against Nadal on Saturday.
“You listen to an NBA game – if they were mic’d up, you’d hear some things from coaches and players. Same in the NFL, and a lot of other sports. A lot of people like to think tennis needs to be one way, but it’s sport, it’s entertainment. I think I speak for a lot of us that we do feed off that very well.”
Perhaps the essence of what Roger Federer was looking for when he envisaged a competition that celebrated those pros that have gone before the current crop was summed up in another exchange between Sock and McEnroe, when the match with world No.1 Nadal was slipping away from him early in the second set.
“I’m an outsider looking in,” the seven-time Grand Slam champion told his compatriot. “But in the past, I was a top guy. I’d look at a guy who’s 10, 20 in the world and say, when push comes to shove, you’re going to beat yourself.
“This is the next step for you. You’ve got to decide. You’re 25 years old – you’ve got to stop shaking your head, and stop taking no for an answer. You’ve got to say, I’m not accepting this anymore. This is mental – you’ve got the shots, you’ve got the feel, you’ve got the speed – but you’ve got to have it here,” he finished, pointing to his head. “You know what I’m saying, man?”
Sock went on to push Nadal closer than ever before, and while he did not claim the win, his performance shifted the momentum for a team that came in as prohibitive underdogs and ended up one point from sending the Laver Cup into the Decider. That’s team spirit. That’s going above and beyond. And that is now the fledgling legacy of the Laver Cup.