“Game, set and match” are the three most celebrated words in tennis. In contrast, “Just an exhibition” are the three most dreaded words in Laver Cup circles.
Of course, the Laver Cup doesn’t offer a single ranking point. It has little of the storied gravitas of the Slams and virtually none of the history of the Davis Cup.
Then again, its emergence in Prague last year prompted jittery Davis Cup officials to scrap the competition’s 118-year-old format.
Last week, the undermanned US Davis Cup team fell short at the 9,000 seat Kresimir Cosik Hall in Zadar, Croatia, which was far from full, while the other Davis Cup semi featured players like Benoit Paire and Pablo Carreno Busta facing off in Lille, France.
This weekend’s Laver Cup bonanza was different. Simply put, it was magical. Chicago’s celebrated United Center drew sellout crowds of 17,500. Ecstatic fans who’d come from Ecuador, Holland and Vegas simply adored it. The energized crowds – whistling and chanting – filled the arena five times in three days. Still, critics howled. Two mighty federations, the USTA and Tennis Australia, had invested millions in the Laver Cup. How did that help tennis or attract kids? Did it boost Chicago’s tennis infrastructure? (Four park courts were refurbished in town.)
And then there was that dreaded phrase, “Just an exhibition.” But get this – something odd, inexplicable and completely wonderful happens at the Laver Cup. From across five decades in time, the game’s greatest players gather all together in one venue. The greatest of all time, Mr. Federer, the hottest player of the summer, Mr. Djokovic, the best young male player, Sascha Zverev, the best middle-aged guy, Grigor Dimitrov, rebel Nick Kyrgios, giants Kevin Anderson and John Isner, diminutive Diego Schwartzman and doubles master Jack Sock were all on hand, as were three icons – Laver, McEnroe and Borg. Who wouldn’t want to revel in all this tennis greatness?
On tour, players are so often grim and expressionless. It’s solitary and brutal out there. But at the Laver Cup, everyone is infused with an empowering and vibrant tribal buzz. You can’t lose for your buddies. Legends and stars are watching. Suddenly, somber jaded fellows display a shameless enthusiasm, morphing into gyrating cheerleaders. After key breaks they furiously chest-bump their teammates, Bryan Brothers style. They break out in unabashed sprints of glee. One felt the love.
More than any other sport, tennis gives fans a glitzy world of compelling celebrity athletes who crisscross the globe. They brim with personality. We know their stories and want to see their faces. In a celebrity culture their appeal is almost universal. The Laver Cup is a shiny showcase. Who knew?
Still, a reporter asked Isner about just how serious the competition is at the Laver Cup. John replied, “Honestly, that question really annoys me.” Later he added, “I think you guys can see how serious it is. The word ‘exhibition’ is so stupid when it comes to talking about this event. It’s the furthest thing from that. I mean, I’m totally dejected right now. Look at Sascha. He went down to his knees after winning that match. It’s not a show. If it is, we’re incredible actors, okay?”
Although the Laver Cup is only in its second year, tennis historian Richard Evans addressed all the cynics, noting, “The Davis Cup wasn’t popular when it first emerged in 1900.”
Of course, one implicit problem with the format of the Laver Cup is just how dominant Europe has been in the men’s game for over a dozen years. A non-European hasn’t prevailed at a Slam in nine years. Team Europe – with Roger, Novak, Zverev and David Goffin (who led Belgium to the 2017 Davis Cup final) was said to be the strongest tennis team ever assembled.
After six matches Team Europe had a commanding 7-1 lead. Never mind that Diego Schwartzman and John Isner had had match points. Europe’s lead was imposing. This could be an embarrassing fail, a Euro rout.
But Team World dug deep and called on its considerable resources. The Laver Cup has an innovative not-all-matches-are-created-equal scoring system that gives first-day matches one point, second-day matches two points and third-day matches three points. So you’re really never out of contention. Also, thanks to a dynamic, diverse and appealing mix of characters, Team World had a plucky spirit and a never-say-die ‘tude. Frances Tiafoe lost early, but never lost his beaming smile. Clearly the team was infused with the fierce spirit of its leader, Johnny Mac. But, despite their loud cheers, Team World’s hopes were small.
Enter tall, quiet Kevin Anderson, who’d lost to Djokovic in the Wimbledon final and had a dismal 1-6 record against the Serb. But the South African played with power and conviction and beat Nole for the first time in a decade.
The surprisingly dominant doubles whiz Jack Sock then teamed with the animated Nick Kyrgios to crush Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin in Saturday night’s instant classic match. Guess what, McEnroe’s over-the-top cast of characters, who’d been in such a world of hurt, turned things around. They were just down 7-5. Going into Sunday there was, so to speak, hope for the World.
But thanks to a brilliant offensive lob winner by Zverev, he and his pretty good partner Roger Federer took the first set of their pivotal match against Sock and Isner. Then the Americans captured the second set, only to fall behind 9-7 in the decisive tiebreak. But Sock stroked an uncanny cross-court forehand winner and Isner saved a match point with a forehand. In an astonishing flash Team World had done the unbelievable, saving two match points, downing their German-speaking foes and putting the underdog Team World ahead 8-7 – simply unbelievable.
Now it was the turn of the man who often inspires the hopes of the world. But today Federer dashed the hopes of Team World, as he rebuffed the weight and grit of Isner’s storm. With sublime defense, slice returns and a blazing crosscourt backhand, Roger’s timeless grace was on full display. The American crowd was enchanted, and amazingly, backed the Swiss as he survived three match points to beat Isner and give Europe a 10-8 lead.
Next Anderson reentered the fray and took advantage of a loose first set tiebreak by Zverev that was crowded with a flung racket and flying forehands. Once again, one wondered if young Zverev would falter under pressure – he’s never gotten beyond a quarterfinal in a Slam. Then again, there’s a reason the 21-year-old is considered tennis’ can’t-miss star of the future. The German got some coaching help from Federer, battleed back, gained the second set, and then, during the decisive tiebreak, spotted Rod Laver on the sidelines. That seemed enough. Just like he’d done earlier in doubles, Sascha hit a brilliant offensive lob winner, as he stormed back from a 5-7 deficit and convincingly won five straight points to claim the trophy for Team Europe, 13-8.
Anderson was a truly noble warrior. His Saturday win over Djokovic changed everything and he came within three points of forcing a Djokovic vs. Kyrgios decider match. Sadly for the humble giant, in just over a year he’s lost finals at the US Open, Wimbledon and here in the final match.
The triumphant hero Zverev summed up the soaring emotion of the moment, saying, “It was an unbelievable weekend and we love it so much. We’d like to play it every week.’
Richard Evans put things in perspective, writing, “In sixty years of covering various sports, I cannot think of a new concept leaping out of the starting blocks with the instant success of the Laver Cup. Huge sell-out crowds on two continents, top stars loving every moment; history highlighted; contests going down to the wire, kids inspired. Amazing.”
Throughout the tone-perfect weekend, which was so much a reflection of Federer’s multifaceted genius, the United Center loudspeakers had one go-to song – “More Than a Feeling.” Almost 90,000 fans left the greatest showcase in the history of Midwestern tennis knowing that the Laver Cup was far more than an exhibition.
Djokovic called it “a perfect dream for tennis.” McEnroe told IT that he just hoped “we in tennis don’t screw it up.” That’s doubtful. There is so much goodness at the heart of this dazzling event which, with almost shocking ease, brings the nuance and magic of a sport together for three days of memorable wonder.