We couldn’t imagine it. John McEnroe would never have leapt into the arms of Jimmy Connors. You never saw Andre Agassi leaping onto Pete Sampras. But can you believe – there in Prague was Rafa joyously jumping into Roger Federer’s triumphant arms after the Swiss clinched the Laver Cup for his Euro team. Go figure.
Then again, Federer’s brainchild, the innovative Laver Cup, gave us a bevy of unique moments and images. There were Rafa and Roger playing doubles together, sometimes to great effect, other times with surprising awkwardness. There was Rafa, whispering in Roger’s ear, “Be more aggressive,” during a changeover at crunch time. There was McEnroe giving Canadian Denis Shapovalov a mid-match backhand lesson or pumping up the usually impassive Jack Sock, telling the American to “finish the son of a bitch [Nadal] off.” Here was a surprisingly effective John Isner, beating Nadal for the first time. And here were the fresh face prospects of tennis, Shapovalov and Sascha Zverev, dazzling with their young skills in old Prague.
When the Ryder Cup-inspired Laver Cup was announced, the conventional wisdom was that it would be the same old story, just another big hat, small steak tennis innovation that would go nowhere. It’s hard to change this game. Just ask the folks at World TeamTennis or the Tennis World Premier League or the Madrid men who installed a blue clay court. Beware when you try to change tennis.
Then again, never underestimate Mr. Federer. Okay, he’s not a gourmet chef and he doesn’t write poetry (we’re pretty sure). Still, the man masters just about everything he does, whether it’s hitting a yellow ball, parenting a cadre of twins, being a celeb, a photographer and a caring humanitarian.
Yes, tennis players from Jack Kramer and Billie Jean King to Charlie Pasarell, Novak Djokovic and Jimmy Connors (who headed his own seniors tournament) have put on events. But Roger conceived the Laver Cup, his agent Tony Godsick and his team ran it, and, when everything was on the line, Roger won it.
From the outset, the Laver Cup was filled with special design elements, a clear attention to detail and many stunning arena effects. There was a black – or was it dark charcoal-gray? – court. Tennis’ traditional third set was replaced by a tie-break, and there was a courtside dugout-style player seating section that helped transform multi-millionaire stars into giddy, who-knew-tennis-could-be-so-fun cheerleaders.
Europe – with the No. 1, 2 and 4 players in the world – boasted the best team ever assembled, thank you very much. Over the first two days they sprinted to a 9-3 lead. But because of the weighted scoring system, the outcome wasn’t clear until the final singles match on Sunday between Federer, 36, and Nick Kyrgios, 22, the two greatest natural talents of their generations. Young Nick seemed to have the upper hand. He had a match point in the second set and a hefty lead in the decisive tie-break. If he won, the Laver Cup would have come down to a final doubles match. But the kid’s belief wavered. Kyrgios blinked and the man of the day, Mr. Federer, did what he does – he came through when it counted the most.
Soon Nadal was leaping. Kyrgios was weeping. Euro fans were screeching. Laver was beaming. Backers of the world team were mumbling: “Shoulda, coulda, woulda.” Federer was swigging champagne out of the customized, oversized Laver Cup. And commentators were asking questions. Would the high-voltage event, which was the most significant tennis exhibition since the Battle of the Sexes in 1973, and which allowed for such great inter-generational bonding and mentoring, energize the mindsets of mid-career campaigners like Isner and Sock and give perspective to the young players – Zverev, Shapovalov and Frances Tiafoe?
Should tennis, as McEnroe suggested, have more events like the Laver Cup or should the promoters beware of overkill and, like the Ryder Cup, hold it only every two years? Will women get involved?
In three sold-out days, the Laver Cup drew 82,273 fans. Next September it will become the first big thing to rock pro tennis in Chicago in 25 years.
Federer loves the heritage of the game. That’s why he decided to honor the game’s legends. But how ironic – the man who so celebrates tradition has just upset tennis’ apple cart with an out-of-nowhere, asymmetrical jolt. Now tennis asks, how will the grand and ancient (but at times staid and overcooked) Davis Cup respond? Its ratings are dipping, top players are yawning and it’s run by federations and committees. Yes, it has history on its side. Then again – the game’s shiny new thing has Roger and presumably Rafa.
The Laver Cup gave us so much that was obviously good. It also gave us one fleeting TV moment on the last day that was a wonder. In eight stunning seconds we saw a close-up of the grizzled John McEnroe, the captain of the World team, coaching up Nick Kyrgios, tennis’ answer to Colin Kaepernick. The TV shot showed us two fierce, against-the-grain, “I’ll-do-it-my-way,” tightly-wired characters – the epitome of edgy, rebel ferocity. And in the next moment we were bathed in sublime serenity. There was the still and placid Swedish legend Bjorn Borg alongside the Captain of Calm, Roger Federer – inward and at ease. Here, in an astounding flash of TV magic, we saw the juxtaposition of the two great schools of tennis – jittery battlers in the tradition of Connors and Agassi, contrasting with the low-key, drama-free centrists, in the tradition of Sampras and Edberg.
Only the Laver Cup could have given us this visual treat that revealed so much.