How change became the winner at Laver Cup
Grand Slam doubles legend and tennis commentator Todd Woodbridge reflects on the experience of covering the inaugural Laver Cup in Prague.
Most people walk with trepidation when venturing into something new. That was my approach to the Laver Cup – not because of the concept, which I believe tennis needed, but because of the way establishment looks at change.
However, I left Prague excited over the birth of an innovative tennis event, and excited over the people – young and old – who will be championing this event in the years to come.
What stood out more than anything was the playing group’s determination to make the Laver Cup more than just another regular event on the calendar. It was clear from the outset that this was to be played with the intensity of a Grand Slam and passion of national representation.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been the leading figures in tennis for the best part of two decades. They are not just supreme athletes, they are leaders in the business of tennis and understand how important it is for the game to evolve and grow.
They have become educators of the next generation — and the Laver Cup provided the perfect opportunity to embrace change and champion a fresh look and feel for tennis. From the innovative scoring format to shortened warm-ups, the sleek black court to the dark stadium lighting, coaches encouraging their players on the sidelines to teammates talking tactics mid-match, each innovation provided an air of anticipation and energy.
Venue a winner
The choice of venue was also brilliant. The Czech Republic is home to a great many tennis fans and has a rich history of Grand Slam champions, yet doesn’t host a major tournament. For the fans, to see these legends was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and their excitement was contagious.
Contrast is so important in sport and the choice of captains was a masterstroke. John McEnroe demonstrated a masterclass in leadership, educating his young players on what the passion and love of tennis is all about – not just the celebrity of being out there in front of thousands of people.
By contrast, Bjorn Borg’s Team Europe adopted his trademark cool, calm and collected disposition. In any sporting contest, fans need that element of disparity to decide which team to align with.
The best individual performance went to John Isner. The big American had to beat Rafael Nadal to keep the contest alive on Sunday and with support on the bench that is normally only seen at NCAA basketball matches, Isner played the match of his career to set up a deciding final singles between Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios.
Kyrgios, who had been blossoming into a leader before the tennis world’s very eyes, was tasked with taking on the ‘Greatest Of All Time’. The brash young Aussie threw everything he had at Federer, forcing him to play some of the best tennis of his career.
Roger rarely disappoints. The entire weekend was his concept, founded on his respect for Rod Laver and his achievements. He had been driving the event, weeks and months in advance, and he finished it in a way that only he could.
For young and old
For as good as the match-play was, there was a moment before the event officially started that represented something far more important – and should warm the hearts of every tennis fan across the world. It was the Laver Cup gala, where the players formally introduced each other on stage.
Alexander Zverev introduced Federer and spoke about the first time he met his idol as a six-year-old. To see such respect and witnessing the generations of our sport passing the baton was special. In recent times, younger players are less knowledgeable about the history of our sport. This event gave players like Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Frances Tiafoe and Denis Shapovalov the chance to pick the brains of its legends and current greats and learn to respect the sport and its history.
Growing the game
In my 30-plus years in tennis, from player to coach to broadcaster, the Laver Cup was one of the most intense and exciting weekends I have been involved in. The freshness, the intensity of competition – but more importantly, the players’ commitment and intent to grow the game – was most definitely my biggest highlight.
Rivalries formed and friendships forged – the Laver Cup had such an effect on its players that, weeks later at a tournament in Shanghai, Team Europe caught up for a celebratory dinner. A rarity, to say the least, in tennis.