THE TRIUMPH OF THE LAVER CUP

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Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images for The Laver Cup

Bill Simons

Chicago

Roger Federer can do anything. He unleashes backhands that amaze. He’s collected 20 singles Slam trophies – the most ever. And Roger had an idea that made great sense.

How about honoring the humble giant of our sport, Rod Laver, together with all those long-ago tennis pioneers of the game who set the table for modern tennis? Thus was born the Laver Cup, a shake-it-all-up innovation that pits Europe’s power players against the “don’t count us out” elite from the rest of the world.

This weekend the second city, Chicago, is hosting the second Laver Cup. The city of the White Sox will feature Mr. Sock (that would be four-time Slam champ Jack Sock). The home of the Bears will welcome a man who loves to tell tales of wolves – Novak Djokovic. The land of the Cubs will feature youngsters like Sascha Zverev and Big Foe – Frances Tiafoe. After a 19-year absence, the world of men’s tennis will come to a city where 120 languages are spoken.

And everything will revolve around RF (Roger Federer), who will be at the House of Jordan, the United Center, the home of Roger’s hero MJ – Michael Jordan.

The Laver Cup makes for a dizzying array of events, sites and visuals. Tennis stars go out to dedicate inner-city courts. The Chicago elite turns out for a black-tie gala in a massive ballroom with fine steaks, daring Chicago-style music, nimble dancers and a speech from the town’s savvy mayor. Here, all eyes are on Roger. No surprise – the metro man’s tuxedo is flawless. Argentine fans cheer from the rafters, and again and again we get the easiest laugh in tennis when 6’10” John Isner towers over diminutive 5’6” Diego Schwartzman. David Goffin says his bench of Federer, Djokovic, Borg, Zverev etc. is “okay.” And Djokovic blasts a crouching Tiger, Mr. Federer, in the lower back with a big serve.

Some dismiss the impact of the Laver Cup. But tennis is so brutal, so unsparing, so Darwinian – lonely and painfully individual. And the Laver Cup is a wondrous counter to all that. Of course, the players are paid hefty appearance fees. Yet their joy is real – their desire clear. They do not want to lose. It’s painful to let your peers down. After a reporter dared to ask, “Where would you rank the seriousness level of this competition?” John Isner bristled and replied, “Honestly, that question really annoys me.”

The bottom line: players love the Laver Cup. Jack Sock says that along with the US Open it’s his favorite time of year. Tiafoe gushes, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Okay, the Laver Cup doesn’t quite have the brand awareness of Wimbledon. My Lyft driver asked me what brought me to town. When I said, “The Laver Cup.” He replied, “Great! What labor convention?”

Here millionaire stars who usually labor with a grim, over-serious intensity become shameless cheerleaders. Frances Tiafoe flashes his best-in-the-game smile. It lights up an arena, a locker room, even a dour press room. Nick Kyrgios, usually so tight and volatile, is joyous and playful. A bounding Isner is the biggest cheerleader you’ve ever seen. Djokovic chats with Roger and you wonder what are they talking about? McEnroe gives us a wise soliloquy on the foibles of the game, while Mac’s younger brother Patrick jokes that it’s the story of his life – he’s both the little brother and the Vice-Captain of the World team. Then he gives us an insightful comparison of Federer and Michael Jordan.

Laver Cup advocates say it’s fresh and innovative, a serious competition and feel-good gathering with a touch of the Ryder and Davis Cups. It’s positioned as an almost noble gathering of the tribe.  “Here,” they boast, “rivals become teammates. The black court, the point system, the dark lighting, the digital rolls, the camera angles – the Laver Cup embraces change and creates fresh new rivalries. A bold new look and feel. A tournament with all the intensity of a Grand Slam and all the passion of crosstown rivals facing each other.”

Someone knows how to pump it up.

“The Laver Cup,” they continue, “is more than a tournament. It started with a purpose and a story to tell. It is a way of giving back, recognizing Laver and all the barnstormers who sacrificed…They did what they loved, so we could do what we love. The Laver Cup is more than a competition. It has heart. Like all great ideas, you ask, ‘Why didn’t someone think of this before?’”

Whew, sounds like the best thing in the game since Federer’s mom dropped him off at a local tennis club and said, “Here’s my son – take good care of him.”

Say what you will, the happening is rather grand.

Analysts ask: would a fan rather go to a star-studded session of the Laver Cup or see the third round of a Slam? Others wonder where the Laver Cup will fit in when the new Davis Cup – which may want to move to the Laver Cup’s time slot – comes on line next year. And will there be just too many team competitions when the ATP’s new World Cup of Tennis begins in 2020? And what’ll happen when Roger finally walks away from the game?

But these are debates for another day. Today a mighty city hosted a mighty event at which big fans cheered small players and tennis got a rare blend of long rallies and broad smiles.

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