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Laver Cup owes success to competitive fire displayed by players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal

When it was announced last year, there was a healthy amount of skepticism about the Laver Cup, a team competition based on golf’s Ryder Cup. The tournament, named after Australian tennis legend Rod Laver, is developed by Roger Federer and his agent, Tony Godsick of Team 8.  Even though Rafael Nadal signed on to play, and John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg were enlisted as team captains for Team World and Team Europe, respectively, it was hard to imagine that a brand new team tennis competition was (a) necessary and (b) serious. After three days in Prague, it’s safe to say that Federer, Nadal and company have delivered an exciting new event that was an absolute highlight of the tennis year.

Initially, event tickets were sold as a single package for all three days of play, and it sold out pretty much immediately, just based on the early announcement that Federer and Nadal would play on the same team. The fact that the inaugural Laver Cup was being held in the Czech Republic, a country with a rich tennis history that hosts no high level tournament itself, helped to drum up local support for the event as well.

It was clear that a good number of the attendees at the O2 Arena in Prague were there for the whole tournament, which created a sort of camaraderie among the spectators as much as among the players. Later, single seat sessions were made available, but those who were able to spend three days watching this event got to see it gather momentum from its literal birth on Friday to an absolutely thrilling finish on Sunday night.

 Laver Cup owes success to competitive fire displayed by players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal

Team Europe's Roger Federer, left, and Rafael Nadal, right, celebrate after defeating Team World's Jack Sock and Sam Querrey. AP

The Laver Cup is certainly a tournament for the social media age. The black court, more a charcoal grey in person, was striking, and the red and blue uniforms of the teams really popped out of the background, as if the scene right before one’s eyes had been run through an Instagram filter—except it was real.

In addition, there were two new camera angles used for replays—the aerial camera, which showed a bird’s eye view of the movement of players across the court during a point, and the netcam, which was positioned at the center of the net on the ground, perfect for watching net rushing and volleys. The tournament organisers also had a great eye for moments to tweet out as short videos or GIFs to share the excitement that was being generated on the court.

The format of the Laver Cup is inspired—the short matches, limited to two tiebreak sets and a 10-point match tiebreak, keep the suspense high. Add to that the fact that matches were worth more points each day meant that neither team could be cut out of contention early in the event. After all, Team World lost six of the eight matches played on Friday and Saturday, but were within a few points of pushing Team Europe to a doubles tiebreak for the trophy on Sunday night.

It also has a natural build for audiences—the first day of matches featured the two youngest players in the event, Canada’s Dennis Shapovalov and the United States’ Frances Tiafoe, both off of strong showings in the summer hardcourt tournaments.

Then Saturday delivered on the promise of Federer and Nadal, each playing singles and then combining for the long-anticipated joining of forces to play doubles. And, just when it seemed like it could not get any better, Sunday’s matches were blockbusters—with Americans Jack Sock and John Isner dominating hometown hero Tomas Berdych and Marin Cilic in doubles, and Isner with the big upset of Rafael Nadal in the singles, bringing Team World, which seemed on the brink of elimination all weekend, within one match of tying the tournament.

Ultimately, however, the success of Laver Cup was always going to depend on the enthusiasm that the players brought to the event. It was far from a guarantee that players would be able to summon a high competitive level for a trophy that had just been invented. After all, there are other team events—running the gamut from the somewhat gimmicky Team Tennis to the Hopman Cup exhibition to the lugubrious Davis Cup tournament—and none has managed to capture the real competitive fire of tennis’ top male stars on a consistent basis.

This is where the Laver Cup truly shone. Some of it may have been due to the format or good planning.  But, there was no way to predict that Team World would bond as quickly as they did—their antics showcased their youthful exuberance and competitive fire, despite being wildly outmatched by Team World, at least on paper.

Team Europe brought an equally passionate, if more subdued, attitude to the tournament, which provided a fun contrast to Team World. The Team World humorous pantomimed reactions to Jack Sock’s play in his losing effort against Rafael Nadal on Saturday ranged from mimicking supermodels to bowling pins, and guaranteed themselves Twitter stardom. And, watching Rafael Nadal and Team Europe react to Roger Federer’s winners and unforced errors on Sunday showed us that they, too, are sports fans, like the rest of us.

And, there were countless moments that we wouldn’t have gotten to see, if not for Laver Cup, whether it was Nadal stopping by the bench to encourage Federer, or Team World huddled around John McEnroe as he exhorted one of their own to fight on.

There was something incredibly personal about this tournament and these matches—and it brought viewers closer to the players on a human level than any tennis event in recent memory—without sacrificing serious, quality, competitive play.

Afterwards, Roger Federer noted, "The only way for it ever to be successful was if the players cared. And they did. I think you see it.” Skeptics will say that the enthusiasm was driven by financial concerns or wasn’t genuine, but that’s just not what we saw this weekend. Instead, the desire to win came from an inherent competitiveness that every professional athlete can summon, a desire to come through for one’s teammates, and a respect for the game—for legends like Laver, McEnroe and Borg, but also for maintaining a high level of play, for spectators, and for themselves.

Of course, the question that has to be asked, as the post-tournament celebrations likely continue in Prague, is can it last? The simple answer is yes, but it depends on the level of player engagement. Here, Laver Cup organisers have been smart—Federer and Nadal have signed on to play next year, and McEnroe and Borg will reprise their roles as team captains as the tournament moves to Chicago in 2018.

And, given the buzz that this year’s Laver Cup has generated, it would be hard to imagine players not wanting to participate next year.

Longer term, it’s likely that Federer, at a minimum, will continue to pour his enthusiasm into the event—it is his labour of love to the history of tennis, and also a property owned by his management company, Team 8, so he will use his influence to keep the event going, if he even needs to.

There is ample precedent for a tournament developing into an important institution from far humbler beginnings than the Laver Cup. After all, it’s hard to imagine it now, but there was a time in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where top players had so little regard for the Australian Open that they declined to interrupt their Christmas holidays to venture all the way to Australia to play.

But, since then, an investment of money in the tournament and the emergence of the Slams as the primary measure of tennis greatness has established the Australian Open as one of the pillars of the tennis establishment. Same goes for the combined ATP/WTA tournament at Indian Wells, California, which, with the significant investment from tournament owner and Oracle founder Larry Ellison, is now considered almost equal to the Slams, and a highlight of the tennis calendar. Given the level of investment, financial and personal, in Laver Cup by its organisers and the smashing success of the 2017 event, there is plenty of momentum already for Laver Cup to gain a strong foothold in the tennis world.

There is a lot of untapped potential in the Laver Cup concept. The first, and most obvious, idea would be to incorporate women’s tennis players into the event—while Federation Cup doesn’t generally suffer from the lack of participation among WTA stars that Davis Cup does with the ATP, the format of Laver Cup and the region rather than country based teams could create some chemistry on a par with what we saw this weekend in Prague.

Second, while the last minute withdrawal of Juan Martin del Potro was somewhat to blame, Team World could use more geographic distribution—but hopefully this year’s success will encourage players like Del Potro and Kei Nishikori to participate in the future.

At the start of the weekend, no one really knew what to make of the Laver Cup, and whether it should be taken seriously. After an exhilarating weekend in Prague, the only doubt left is whether we can really wait a whole year to do it again.

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Updated Date: Sep 25, 2017 09:02:55 IST

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