Roger's Cup and the future of Team Europe vs Team World
Watching Ben Shelton and Frances Tiafoe elevate after match point on Sunday, it certainly looked like winning still mattered at the Laver Cup.
For three days, the young, mostly American members of Team World had bonded and bantered, talking strategy on changeovers and between big serves like a bunch of 21st-century tennis nerds huddled around the same screen with chips and dip.
It worked, and it worked almost too well, draining nearly all the suspense out of the Vancouver edition of this six-year-old annual team event dreamed up by Roger Federer and his agent Tony Godsick.
Team World, once the punching bag in this competition, was suddenly the heavyweight: dominating each of the three days of play and quickly clinching a 13-2 victory over Team Europe on Sunday as Shelton and Tiafoe defeated Andrey Rublev and Hubert Hurkacz 7-6 (4) 7-6 (5) in the opening (and closing) match.
“It felt unbelievable to kick their ass babyyyyy!” shouted John McEnroe, the Team World captain and former enfant terrible who still has some mellowing to do at age 64.
But what exactly had the fiery McEnroe and his team achieved? It is hard to know at this transitional phase of the Laver Cup, a superstar vehicle that was dangerously low on superstar power this time around. This was certainly not the best of Europe getting thumped by the best of the rest.
The biggest attraction in Vancouver did not play a point. That was Federer, who retired at last year’s Laver Cup in London and was back in force with microphone, but no racket, in hand. He was courtside, often in celebrity company, for every session and walked smoothly onto the black court on night one on his post-operative knees to pull up a chair and give a lengthy, year-after interview to Jim Courier. During their chat Federer revealed that all four of his children hit two-handed backhands, and confirmed that he did indeed plan to become Team Europe’s captain down the road (better sooner than later, it seems).
It was enough to make you wonder whether Rogers Arena was in fact missing an apostrophe.
This was still Federer’s baby: from the Roger Cam that tracked his movements to the concession stands that sold “RF” merch and On footwear. And it was not a great sign that it was still so much his baby because it meant the high-priced event really (really) needed his presence with none of the world’s top five players in the mix.
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Men’s tennis this year has been, for the most part, all about Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz with Daniil Medvedev playing the occasional spoiler. None of those three Europeans made it to Vancouver, and neither, for various reasons, did Holger Rune, Stefanos Tsitsipas or Jannik Sinner.
That left the Laver Cup with only three top 10 players and no past or present Grand Slam singles champions. Only one player in Vancouver even made it to a Masters 1000 final this season (Rublev won in Monte Carlo).
This was quite a comedown from London with its global buzz and Big Four farewell party as Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray joined forces for Team Europe to send Federer off in appropriately sentimental style.
Not one of them played in Vancouver with Djokovic and Murray opting to play for their countries in Davis Cup in Europe the week before the Laver Cup.
“It was always going to be hard, especially with my retirement,” Federer said. “Rafa being injured. Novak taking a break. I understood, obviously, completely. Murray maybe not coming back again. It’s understandable.”
What must have been harder to accept was the absence of the next generation’s leaders. The Laver Cup was modeled on golf’s successful and routinely nerve-jangling Ryder Cup, which matches Europe’s best against the USA’s best.
The Ryder Cup has an increasing number of captain’s picks, but participation is by and large based on qualifying with players sweating out the two-season-long points race to make the teams.
The Laver Cup was supposed to work the same way but has turned into something much less clearcut with players’ participation announced throughout the year, presumably after negotiations with their management have been concluded. Gaël Monfils, a flashy fan favorite at age 37, was a captain’s pick for the European team this year despite being ranked outside the top 100.
“I even thought it was a joke,” Monfils said on social media last week of his invitation.
All this gray area only makes the Laver Cup feel more like an exhibition, which is not what Federer wanted when he threw his weight behind the event’s creation. Though the Laver Cup does not offer ranking points, he and Godsick fought hard and successfully for it to become an official part of the ATP Tour. They wanted gravitas and full-blooded competition, just like the Ryder Cup, which also offers no ranking points.
But there is lingering and perhaps increasing confusion. Monfils, playing the Laver Cup for the first time, seemed like he was ready to hit and giggle when he faced Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime in singles on opening night. But Auger-Aliassime, like Team World in general, was up for the real deal and asked for the chair umpire, a regular ATP official, to enforce the time limits between points.
Auger-Aliassime and Monfils, who are friendly, ended up having a tense exchange that also served as an impromptu debate about the Laver Cup’s identity. Is it a playoff game or an all-star game?
My sense from having covered the Laver Cup from the beginning in Prague in 2017 is that the players, following Federer’s lead, have taken it seriously. The down-to-the-wire finishes in the first three editions were full of shouts and shaky hands. The London edition was full of tears and huge swings in emotion and momentum.
But that was not the vibe that predominated in Vancouver.
I received this text from a friend of mine who attended the matches on Friday and Saturday:
“The event itself was well run and felt like a celebration of tennis rather than a result-oriented tournament where anybody cared what happened. There were lots of people and everyone there was enthusiastic to see world-class tennis. But you can’t help but feel that the results are irrelevant to everyone, including the players and coaches. The opposite of Ryder Cup.”
My friend, who had also attended the Chicago edition of the Laver Cup in 2018, added that he had heard lots of cheers and applause during the two days in Vancouver but had never heard anyone in the arena talking about the overall score.
To be clear, that is just one fan talking, but he also said that while Laver Cup tickets were expensive at official prices, he had managed to buy two tickets last week for just 25 US dollars apiece on StubHub.
That was the market talking, and some of those who bought tickets at face value were certainly expecting more star power for their money.
“Obviously everybody was asked to play, and we want all the best to play,” Federer said. “But it wasn’t possible with schedules and all that stuff. I was a tough guy as well when it came to scheduling, I was very rigorous about which tournaments I could play.”
That is true. Federer’s longevity was due in part to his less-is-more approach and his ability to take meaningful in-season breaks to recharge his batteries.
Djokovic, back at No. 1 at age 36, has said that he learned to schedule by observing Federer. Alcaraz, just 20 years old but also trying to set himself up for a long run, clearly has taken note as well.
Without Alcaraz, who has yet to play in the Laver Cup, it is hard to see the event truly thriving in the years to come. Federer told Eurosport on Sunday that he would like to see “Alcaraz and Novak in the same team” for the next edition in Berlin in 2024.
But there are no guarantees. As Federer knows too well, it comes down to choices, often hard choices. Alcaraz’s coach Juan Carlos Ferrero was one of the leaders of the team that won Spain’s first Davis Cup in 2000. Alcaraz, a proud Spaniard, would surely like to win it for Spain as well. But the late-season schedule is very tight with the Davis Cup Final’s group phase taking place the week after the US Open and with the Laver Cup the following week.
Alcaraz, who played the home stretch of the US Open with his left thigh wrapped tightly, withdrew from Davis Cup despite Spain playing in Valencia, not far from Alcaraz’s home city of Murcia.
Without Alcaraz, Spain failed to qualify for the final phase that will be held in November in Malaga. Alcaraz will presumably want to help make amends by playing Davis Cup in 2024, which is also an overstuffed Olympic year.
It is tough to imagine that the Laver Cup will be a priority, and though I have liked Laver Cup from the beginning and think it adds value and variety to tennis, Davis Cup is what truly needs a revival. Though Davis Cup has become an afterthought and is still searching for more support and the right format, it has 123 years of history and can still generate powerful emotions and scenes (see Manchester this month).
It is by far the most democratic of the team events: allowing players from nearly every country to represent their nation, sometimes at home. The Laver Cup, by design, is elitist with its six-player teams and tight three-day schedule. In Team World, it also has a conceptual problem (Cheering for the “Rest of the World” is not a natural rallying point).
I ran an unscientific online poll this week asking which team event the sport should prioritize. More than 4,000 people responded, with 64 percent choosing the Davis Cup, 17 percent choosing the Laver Cup and 15 percent choosing the United Cup, the new combined men’s and women’s event that started in Australia this year.
In an ideal world, there should be room for all three to thrive. They each bring something different to the mix. But since when has pro tennis been an ideal world?
McEnroe knows this too well, which is why he went out of his way to defend the Laver Cup in Vancouver, saying he hoped the sport would “realize the gift” it had been given by having Laver and Federer “associated with a team event like this”.
“I think it would be a shame if this thing didn’t continue to exist in the calendar,” McEnroe said. “As a matter of fact, I think it needs more of a stand-alone time so that all players will feel like it’s not something that scheduling-wise is even an issue, and I think that’s become one.
“I won’t get into the minutiae of why because it’s too boring and too frustrating actually to have watched this over the course of my entire professional career, watching tennis shoot themselves in the foot in my opinion. And hopefully they won’t do it with this, because I’ve seen them do it on numerous other occasions.”
The odds then are that it will happen again. But what seems clear is that if the Laver Cup, an itinerant event with a whole lot of overhead, is to beat the historical odds, it needs to be the best playing with the best against the best playing with the best.
That is a lot to ask, even of Federer, with all the agendas at work. But in a very crowded tennis landscape and a much more crowded entertainment landscape, that is where the meaning comes from.
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P.S. For those interested in reading my NYT bestseller “The Master” on Federer, you can find it here . Thanks everyone.