Skeptics – there were plenty of them in the weeks leading up to last week’s inaugural Laver Cup in Prague.
Did players really want to play two weeks after the US Open, which in many ways is the end of the year’s big-time tennis schedule? And who wanted to play just five days after a major Davis Cup weekend that involved some Laver Cup competitors – Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios and Denis Shapovalov?
There’s no question burn-out is an issue after the US Open but the Laver Cup format made it significantly easier to manage than might have been originally thought. There were two key factors: 1. there was no chance of exhausting three-set matches lasting three hours because there was no third set – just a 10-point match tiebreak. 2. the players were not asked to play more than two singles over the three-day event, something that they could handle even with the accumulated fatigue of a long season and, for some, draining Davis Cup matches five or six days earlier in different parts of the world.
What proved to be the key to the Laver Cup’s success – and it shouldn’t be any other way – the players bought in (see Kyrgios above after losing the decisive singles match on Sunday). Even with Team Europe dominant and leading 9-3 going into Sunday’s final three matches with the outcome seeming a foregone conclusion, there was never a hint of anyone going through the motions. Just about every match was competitive.
Before Sunday’s drama, there had been two highlights – the obvious team spirit of the youthful Team World spearheaded by Kyrgios and Jack Sock and the unveiling of the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal doubles duo on Saturday.
Above the two legends almost collide before Federer ducked and let Nadal take the overhead.
Logically the first-to-12 points team format should have led to an anticlimactic final day on Sunday with Team Europe winning either the opening doubles match – Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych over Jack Sock and John Isner – or surely the awesome Nadal pretty well finishing off things with a victory over Isner.
Team Europe had four of the top-five ranked players in the world – Nadal (1), Federer (2), Sascha Zverev (4) and Thiem (5). The average ranking of the six players on Team Europe was 6.3. The average ranking of Team World was 32.8 – ranging from Sam Querrey at No. 16 to Frances Tiafoe at No. 72. Denis Shapovalov, who acquitted himself well in an opening day 7-6(3), 7-6(5) loss to Zverev, was the second lowest ranked at No. 51.
Sunday sealed the deal for the success of the event. With the graduated points scale of one per match on Friday, two per match on Saturday and three per match on Sunday – a doubles win by Isner and Sock and then Isner’s upset of Nadal, made the score 12-9 for Team Europe with Team World needing a victory by Kyrgios in the final match against Federer to make the score 12-12 and force a Laver Cup-deciding single set of doubles.
Kyrgios – Federer was a match-up of the most talented player of his generation, Federer, versus the most talented player to come along since the great Swiss emerged in the early 2000s, Kyrgios.
Federer could be described as an orchestra leader of a shot-maker on the court, the one who conducts the action and controls the tempo and choreography of the action.
The problem for him against Kyrgios was that the 22-year-old Aussie was the superior orchestra-leader shot-maker. Mostly he was in charge of what happened in the points and it was obvious that Federer was uncomfortable, to say the least, with someone else mostly dictating what happened in the rallies.
Federer wound up winning 4-6, 7-6(6), [11-9] after saving a match point but Kyrgios was the superior, more dynamic player on the day. His over-exuberance and inexperience finally caught up with him and he made three unforced errors after holding the match point at 9-8 in the decisive match tiebreak.
Maybe a final decisive set of doubles – likely with Federer and Nadal for Team Europe – would have been more exciting. But as it was, Federer winning a thriller over the gifted but madcap and mercurial Kyrgios was as good a finish as was imaginable. Because of their exceptional tennis skills, Federer – Kyrgios (when his heart is in it) is currently the most compelling match-up in men’s tennis. Their 7-6(9), 6-7(9), 7-6(5) semifinal at the Miami Open in March, won by Federer, still stands as arguably the best match of 2017.
The 2017 Laver Cup gets an ‘A’ for presentation. Everything from TV graphics to the shorter time during changeovers and the Laver Cup ‘branding’ black court, from camera-work to the courtside enclosures for both teams, was innovative and impressive for a first-time event.
John McEnroe, captain of Team World, was a constant and compelling presence, truly getting into the job of motivating his players. Sadly he was a 6-0 winner over the much more subdued captain Bjorn Borg, by comparison mainly a bystander with Team Europe.
One criticism of the event would be that there was not a single non-Anglophone on Team World. It would have been nice if Kei Nishikori or Juan Martin Del Potro (both unfit) had been on the team.
All in all it was a terrific debut for the event. Much as traditionalists may not be convinced, the proof was in the pudding and tennis fans in Chicago are in for a treat if the 2018 Laver Cup is even close to as good 12 months from now.
The weeks are dwindling down to a previous few for the men and the women on the ATP and WTA tours. After this week, there are just five weeks left on the ATP World Tour and three on the WTA tour, before their respective year-end championships of various sorts.
Here are the schedules (subject to change) of Canada’s top players:
MILOS RAONIC (No. 11): Tokyo (Oct. 2): Shanghai (Oct. 9): Vienna (Oct. 23): Paris (Oct. 30).
DENIS SHAPOVALOV (No. 52): Tokyo (Oct. 2): Antwerp (Oct. 16): Basel (Oct. 23): Paris (Oct. 30): Next Gen ATP Finals – Milan (Nov. 7).
VASEK POSPISIL (No. 85): Tokyo (Oct. 2): Shanghai (Oct. 9).
GENIE BOUCHARD (No. 85): Beijing (Oct. 2): Hong Kong (Oct. 9): Luxembourg (Oct. 16).
FRANCOISE ABANDA (No. 114): Linz (Oct. 9): Luxembourg (Oct. 16) – then possibly Challengers in Saguenay (Oct. 21) and Toronto (Oct. 28).
BIANCA ANDREESCU (No. 161): Linz (Oct. 9): Luxembourg (Oct. 16): $60,000 Saguenay National Bank Challenger (Oct. 21): $60,000 Tevlin Women’s Challenger in Toronto (Oct. 28).
— Rod Laver (@rodlaver) September 24, 2017
Now 79, Rodney George Laver is one of most unassuming and greatest champions in tennis history. Widely beloved and respected, the ‘Rocket’ won two Grand Slams of all four majors – in 1962 as an amateur and 1969 as a professional. He had many remarkable accomplishments including being on a Davis Cup winning team every year that he played – 1959-60-61-62-73.