Every competition in sport has to start somewhere. For many the first staging is a modest affair, and the event grows over time. Few kick off with such a high profile as the Laver Cup, and few have such a dream start.
The fact that the outcome was in doubt until the very last point was only part of the success. Team World so fancied their chances in a deciding doubles shootout that the match point Roger Federer saved against Nick Kyrgios at 9-8 in their super tiebreak was almost a point to win the Cup. It really was that close – but there was more to the inaugural Laver Cup than just the on-court quality and excitement.
For a start, the event brought together four generations of tennis. While the trophy carries the name of Rod Laver for his exploits in the 1960s, Federer made it clear that his motivation in driving the birth of the competition was not just to honor Laver but the whole of Laver’s generation who laid the foundations for professional tennis from which today’s players make a very healthy living.
Represented in Prague were not just Laver and his era, but the generation of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, the leaders (with Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova) of the first fully professional generation that established tennis as a global phenomenon in the 1970s and 80s. It featured Federer and Rafael Nadal, arguably the greatest rivalry in the history of the sport. And there were Alexander Zverev and Denis Shapovalov, who with Dominic Thiem, Kyrgios, Frances Tiafoe and Thanasi Kokkinakis could well be the leaders of the generation that dominates tennis after 2020. It was a truly historic parade.
“I hope the players walk away from here hungry,” said Federer amid Team Europe’s celebrations. “Hungry and falling more deeply in love with our sport because they’ve seen history. History is so important to me and I hope more players see it that way. If they didn’t already, I hope they take that away from this weekend. And I hope they take what they’ve learned from this team environment and become better players on the tour.”
Kyrgios certainly seemed to echo that. The troubled Australian has struggled with motivation, injuries and mixed results all year, yet seemed to find both focus and inspiration amid an environment characterised by the stern parental input of the McEnroe brothers and the playfulnesss of his good friend Jack Sock and other members of the World squad. “Laver Cup should be every week,” said Kyrgios, and it was easy to believe his fortunes would be better if it were.
In an increasingly congested sporting marketplace, the Laver Cup brought something new. There are many overlaps with the Davis Cup, but the floor space the team members had in front of their benches allowed for some wonderful antics, especially from the Team World bench. It was a constant source of creative celebrations, which communicated an irrepressible sense of fun.
There were new TV angles that showed how coverage of tennis is constantly evolving, and the windfall of having the world’s top two players playing doubles with each other on Saturday night added a historic element for casual and diehard fans alike. Because they are such legends, it had somehow escaped many that Federer and Nadal might not beat Isner and Sock, and there was something plaintive about Federer’s comment: “We had to win because the world wouldn’t have understood if we hadn’t!”
Although the losing captain, John McEnroe came away with his reputation enhanced. He could so easily have slipped into “You cannot be serious!” mode when Denis Shapovalov was harshly ordered to replay the point after a service winner was incorrectly called out. Yet he remained a dignified presence, and had a massive role in turning Kyrgios’ fortunes round when the Aussie was struggling in the early stages of his singles against Berdych.
“I’m hopeful that the guys who watched this from afar, those who were involved, and the future No 1s watched this and realize how good this could be for the game,” McEnroe said. “I’m confident it’s an event that’s here to stay. Rod Laver is a legend, and Roger is behind this – even after his playing days he’s going to stay involved. I think it’s an absolute positive for tennis, it was an awesome event.”
Federer was more restrained. “Of course we’re very happy with the first one,” he said, “but we need to breathe and to take time to talk about it. I think we’ll know more about how the Laver Cup is going to be in about three years’ time, once the first three editions have gone by and we have a year off during the Olympic year. That’s when we can really assess how successful it’s going to be.”
Because of the success of the Laver Cup’s debut, Chicago has a hard act to follow in a year’s time. But Federer isn’t worried: “There’s always pressure, but I’m maybe more confident for the second time round than for the first time.”