“You give me butterflies.”
That’s what the caption on Roger Federer’s T-shirt read when he took the court for a doubles practice session with Rafael Nadal at the Laver Cup in Geneva. It was a particularly apt line for a tournament that has become almost synonymous with Fedal bromance, but it could have just as easily been an expression of what the fans were feeling.
Does Nadal’s presence give Federer ‘butterflies’? The shipping jury is still out on that. But are the fans tickled pink whenever they see the two biggest legends of the sport putting aside their fierce competitive rivalry to prank and high-five each other, boyish grins firmly in place? Undoubtedly.
Despite all the skepticism and dismissiveness that the Laver Cup first elicited when it was launched in 2017, it has turned into a PR juggernaut of epic proportions. The Federer name was always going to attract attention, and many believe the idea of the tournament was born out of his wish to create a post-retirement cash cow. But by bringing his ‘friends’ into the fold and making the event a star-studded pageant, Federer and his associates have gone one better: they have created a celebration of tennis that is tailor-made for our quick consumption era.
In other words, the Laver Cup is like 'Keeping Up With The Kardashians' (KUWTK) for the tennis world. All the high-profile tennis stars (save for Novak Djokovic, but even he made an appearance last year) get together for a weekend of holiday fun, with a rolling camera capturing every minute of their posh lives. How much of their camaraderie is genuine and how much is staged, is down to personal perception – not unlike other reality TV shows.
In any case, the tournament has been a resounding success with the fans so far. The first two editions had sold-out crowds for practically all the matches, and the social media explosion in the lead-up to this year’s event in Geneva has been nothing short of extraordinary. The tournament may still be a work-in-progress, and some of the hype by the players may seem artificial, but there’s no denying the Laver Cup’s popularity.
What of the actual tennis though? Is it as compelling and hard-fought as the players would have you believe? The first couple of years it was tempting to brush off the on-court play as slightly advanced exhibition fare, with most results going according to script and Federer getting to celebrate exuberantly at the end of everything. But this year the event has been accorded ATP status, and prima facie that should change things significantly.
There will be no ranking points on offer, but each result would count in the head-to-head record of the players. Moreover, the first three players of each team are chosen based on the ATP rankings, so selection bias is not such a big factor.
There is more than just money and popularity at stake now; the players can actually polish their CVs with a good performance at the event.
Many might find it odd that the head-to-head change has been implemented with retrospective effect. John Isner now has a win over Nadal because of his Laver Cup triumph over the Spaniard in 2017, which doesn’t sound right. But it’s hard to not get excited about the match-up possibilities that the tournament holds going forward, now that every single match counts for something.
There are several matches this year that have the potential to bring the house down, aside from the one featuring the mother of all doubles partnerships. Day 1 kicks off with Dominic Thiem vs Denis Shapovalov, a shot-making spectacle even at the worst of times. There will likely be a Nadal vs Nick Kyrgios showdown at some point too, and also possibly a Jack Sock vs Fabio Fognini trick-shot battle.
The doubles matchups are just as intriguing, if not more. Federer and Nadal are likely team up on Saturday, and if we are lucky they will face off against Kyrgios and Sock. The American might seem like an anomaly here, but he was something of a Laver Cup hero last year; he wowed everyone with his insane doubles skills and incredible touch to get Team World to the brink of victory.
Even if Kyrgios doesn’t play against the Fedal team, we know that he will provide a year’s worth of entertainment against any other pairing too. In fact, Kyrgios is almost guaranteed to light up the court every time he steps on it, whether for singles or doubles. The Australian was born for the kind of spotlight and atmosphere that the Laver Cup provides, and all of his matches in 2017 and 2018 were must-see TV.
Team World’s reliance on Kyrgios does, of course, highlight the gaping imbalance between the two sides. Europe has Federer, Nadal, Zverev, Tsitsipas, Thiem and Fognini – in short, the best players in the world minus Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev. By contrast, Isner is the highest-ranked member of Team World, with Milos Raonic being the only other semi-reliable player in their ranks. On the surface, this is not a contest; it is a recipe for bloodshed.
But the format of the tournament does go some way towards establishing parity.
Every member from each team has to play at least one singles match, and no player can turn out for more than two. Considering there are as many as nine singles matches to be played (three on each day), that limits the damage that Federer and Nadal can inflict.
Besides, the fact that at least four members from each side have to play doubles works in favor of Team World. Captain John McEnroe has a doubles specialist (Sock) to call upon, and big servers like Isner and Raonic are also useful in the format. On the other hand, Europe captain Bjorn Borg has to make do with a slew of makeshift doubles players who have rarely, if ever, played together. It is no surprise that his team has a 1-5 doubles record over the two previous editions.
The support from each squad assembled on the sidelines will also play a big role in the event, at least from the entertainment perspective. When you have Federer and Nadal in the dugout cheering you on, and Kyrgios and Sock from the opposition camp trying to get under your skin, you know you’re not playing an ordinary tennis match.
If the pre-tournament hobnobbing at the Laver Cup is the tennis equivalent of KUWTK, the in-tournament cheerleading gives you the impression of Davis Cup on steroids. The atmosphere is filled with Davis Cup-style vocal exhortations and in-your-face celebrations, with one significant difference: the exhortations and celebrations are led by two men who have 39 Slams between them.
The more hardcore tennis fans will also be interested to see how Zverev and Tsitsipas behave when they are seated next to each other in the same dugout. The two NextGen stars never shy away from taking pot-shots at each other, with Zverev making a snide remark as recently as two weeks ago about Tsitsipas ‘changing his shoes 15 times in a tournament’.
Maybe Zverev will feel less attacked by Tsitsipas’ shenanigans if he is allowed to borrow from the Greek’s seemingly endless supply of footwear? You almost wish Medvedev (who is something of a Tsitsipas arch-enemy) was present at the event too, to add even more spice to the proceedings.
That is arguably the biggest USP of the Laver Cup: the never-seen-before team dynamics it displays. We don’t know how much of the impish fraternizing among the players is genuine, but we do know we’ll never get to see any of it – whether real or fake – anywhere else.
The image of Nadal excitedly jumping into Federer’s arms at the 2017 Laver Cup, and the Swiss responding by lifting his arch-rival off his feet, has become the ultimate representation of ‘Fedal love’ among tennis fans. And ahead of this year’s edition Federer went even further by saying, “Maybe I’ll jump on top of him this time and break his back.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that was a tweet by the Incorrect Tennis Quotes handle, or a part of a disturbingly imaginative fan-fiction story. Even I would’ve had a tough time believing he actually said it if I hadn’t seen the video of the comment myself.
But that’s the Laver Cup, in all its guilty-pleasure cheesiness. We better believe it.
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Updated Date: Sep 20, 2019 11:22:47 IST