The Laver Cup: Made for TV and to generate profits? Sure.
A few forced rules to manufacture final day drama? No doubt.
A clever idea to place individual stars into a team format to create an intense tennis spectacle? Absolutely
The third edition of the star laden Team Europe vs.Team World tennis competition called The Laver Cup will be played this coming weekend, September 20-22 in Geneva, Switzerland.
The Unique Atmosphere
The Laver Cup made its debut in Prague in 2017. One of the largest concerns at the beginning hinged on the interest level of the players. With no ATP Tour points available and no tradition or history, some worried that world class players would treat the event like a glorified exhibition.
While much of the sports world overlooked or missed the first two editions of this event, the atmosphere in Prague and then again in 2018 in Chicago was simply electric. Fist pumping players, enthusiastic celebration from team members on the bench and raucous sell out crowd participation all fueled the atmosphere. The camaraderie of the team members who almost always play as individuals created a compelling scene.
Player Passion on Display
While the anticipation of Team Europe teammates Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer pairing up in doubles at the inaugural 2017 event ignited early curiosity, it was actually the emotion of tennis enigma Nick Kyrigos that most clearly captured player interest in the first two years.
Kyrigos, playing for Team World for the third time in 2019, broke into tears after losing the final match to Federer in 2017. About the inaugural event, Kyrgious later said, “It was amazing for me. To be a part of that, something special for me was probably the funnest week of my career so far, better than the Grand Slams”.
Kyrigos presents one of the largest illustrations of player interest and intensity; there are more. In 2018, Team Europe’s Alex Zverev violently smashed his racket after making errors in singles and Team World’s John Isner’s joyously jumped around the court while mobbed by teammates after a doubles win. Pure player passion on full display.
Likewise, bench celebratory explosions by Team World’s Frances Tiafoe and authentic arguments over chair umpire calls by Team World Captain John McEnroe further illustrated how seriously participants wanted the cup.
Laver Cup Basics
Sometimes compared to golf’s Ryder Cup, The Laver Cup matches a six man team from Europe against a six man team from the rest of the world in a three day event to decide who takes home the cup. Teams comprise a mix of players who qualify with ranking status along with members chosen by the captains.
For the third straight year, Swedish legend Bjorn Borg captains Team Europe and American John McEnroe leads Team World. The Palexpo in Geneva will host the 2019 edition of this growing event.
Nine singles matches and three doubles matches are split evenly over the three days of competition. Matches are best of three sets with the third set being a first to 10 points tiebreaker. There are two sessions of matches on Friday and Saturday. The single Sunday session can have up to 4 matches, plus a one set event tiebreaker if needed.
Three singles and one doubles match are scheduled each day. Friday matches are worth one point, Saturday matches two points and Sunday matches three points. A team needs 13 points to capture the Laver Cup.
With half of the 24 available points awarded on Sunday, the event can not be decided until the final day. If the teams are tied 12-12 after all matches are played, a one set doubles match decides the entire affair.
The Doubles…The Doubles
Different from other big time tennis events, Laver Cup doubles takes a turn occupying center stage. Even traditional Davis Cup doubles are not as important as in this team event.
Laver Cup doubles count for a full one third of the points and are frequently played by the megastars. Federer and Nadal teamed up in 2017 and the pairing of Federer and rival Novak Djokovic debuted in 2018.
The Team World pair of Jack Sock and John Isner saved match points, then knocked off Europe’s Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev in an utterly thrilling Day 3 doubles match in 2018 to give Team World a lead on Day 3 for the first time in Laver Cup history. Sock holds the unique status of being the only player to have played in every Laver Cup doubles match in history. He will bring a 5-1 Laver Cup doubles record into the 2019 matches.
Laver Cup rules and scoring bring focus to decisions made by the captains and teams. All six team members must play singles on Day 1 or Day 2, but none can play both. At the same time, Day 1 matches are worth one point each while Day 2 matches are worth two points apiece.
So, if Borg wants to grab a quick lead by sending Nadal and Federer out early on Day 1, he can try that plan. However, at that point the two megastars are then unavailable for singles on Day 2. At the same time, waiting to send big guns out on Day 2 may put a team in a hole and ignite momentum for the opponent. And…what will the opponents do? What matchups favor each side? And…and…and.
Additionally, any player can play singles on Day 3, but if a captain holds an older or slightly injured player until Day 2, that player may have to return on Sunday with little or no rest.
Likewise, doubles rules require strategic thought. Any team member can play doubles, but no two man team can play more than once. Should a captain save his best doubles team until Sunday? Might it be too late by this time to turn the tide of the weekend? Can an aging star handle singles and doubles on the same day? And…and…and.
The Future Holds Questions
The 2019 event once again features a stacked Team Europe led by world #2 Rafael Nadal and #3 Roger Federer. Their participation along with venue being in Federer’s home country ensures another strongly attended event. What about after 2019?
Already there are a few cracks. Despite the strength of the participants this year, some players chose not to play. Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime and Japanese Kei Nishikori chose not to play for Team World this year, instead focusing on their individual schedules. Winning team players earn about $250,000 each, but nebulous guaranteed appearance fees likely vary greatly from player to player.
Additionally, The Laver Cup and ATP Tour need to solidify their relationship. After two very successful Laver Cup events in the first two years, the ATP Tour added the event to their calendar. This addition gives Laver Cup additional support, including physios, marketing and more. Still, just a few days before the matches begin, the front page of atpworldtour.com proudly displays no fewer than nine references to their ATP Cup scheduled in 2020. At the same time, the Laver Cup, being held this week, appears zero times on the website homepage. Hmmmm.
As players like Federer and Nadal move toward the latter part of their careers, participation by new stars will be necessary to ensure the product grows in stature and excitement. Kyrigos, Zverev and Dominic Thiem return for 2019; they are joined by Team Europe youngster Stefanos Tsitsipas and 2017 Team World player Denis Shapovalov.
Another exciting event with some strong contribution from these twentysomethings should help propel the Laver Cup to continued growth.
The first two Laver Cups were inside out affairs. Noisy sold out arenas and highly invested players supplied a great feel to attendees and viewers. At the same time, television coverage is relegated to Tennis Channel in the US and ESPN does not come close to leading Sportscenter with highlights. If it flourishes for years to come, viewers of the first two Laver Cups will reminisce about watching when many people knew nothing about it.
So, with much of the United States consumed with college and pro football and many tennis fan’s interest quieted a touch after a thrilling US Open, The Laver Cup returns. Laver Cup enthusiasts and hard core fans know a potentially breathtaking set of matches is coming.
Team Europe holds the on paper advantage with all six team members ranked inside the world’s top 11. Underdog Team World’s highest ranked player is #20 John Isner. Still, early Laver Cup history and a scoring system that increases the odds of upsets show that anything goes this weekend. Year 3 of a growing spectacle starts Friday. Ready? Play.