Roger Federer has been practicing in Prague for the inaugural Laver Cup. (Twitter @LaverCup)
Conceived by perhaps the most beloved figure ever to swing a racket, and created to honor the tennis legend for whom it is named, the Laver Cup has the pedigree to convince people that it’s not just another tennis exhibition.
The interesting question is, does it even need to?
The brainchild of Roger Federer and his managers at sports agency Team 8, the Laver Cup aims to carve out a unique niche in the tennis landscape—much like the one profitably created by the Hopman Cup, which has become a popular fixture on the calendar at New Year’s.
The inaugural edition will be played this Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Prague, pitting six-man teams representing Europe and the World in a total of 12 singles and doubles matches. Its format has nothing to do with Grand Slams (the ITF can sleep with both eyes closed), nor the ATP World Tour (the board can call a meeting a discuss ways to “synergize.”)
Here are the basics, explained:
The Hopman Cup started as an exhibition, scoffed at by many in the establishment. But when tournament tennis is the only recognized game in town (with the exception of Davis and Fed Cups), a space must be created for the square pegs like Hopman Cup, or the Laver Cup. If none exists, you drill one in a convenient hole in the calendar.
Timing-wise, this isn’t a bad week for this experiment. Laver Cup is a both a regional and international team event, and all the ATP World Tour events this month are 250s. That means that while the stars who play for Team Feder—er, Team Europe can rest and practice just before the Laver Cup, lesser lights get a better look at a bigger paycheck at one of the smaller ATP events.
If the Laver Cup gains traction, it may eventually fall into the same category as Davis Cup. (That might set some alarm bells ringing at the ITF.) But the granddaddy of all international team competitions may not even be the best point of comparison.
The true model for the Laver Cup is golf’s Ryder Cup, which never really evolved beyond its unique—and wildly successful—USA vs. Europe format. As John McEnroe, captain of Team World for the Laver Cup, said at a press conference before the start of the US Open in August: “We are looking to do something big here along the lines of the Ryder Cup in golf, and I think this is a magnificent way to try to get this going.”
So what will it take to make this event succeed, and how well designed is the Laver Cup to deliver that ingredient? The answer is simple: passion.
If this competition appears to mean something to the players, it will mean something to those watching. It’s why so many exhibitions fail, and why “real” tennis is so compelling. Without passion, which is difficult to fake, an event can be entertaining. It can be great fun. It can instructive. But it won’t be meaningful, and thus it won’t really be credible.
It’s clear that Federer and company want to deliver a well thought-out product. That’s evident in the various unfamiliar elements they’ve built into the competition, like the escalating value of each match win by day—a match win is worth one point on Friday, two on Saturday, three on Sunday. It’s also obvious in the way the architects decided on how and when the captains would submit their lineups to each other, leaving room for strategic maneuvering. The designers clearly tried to deliver a unique product that had integrity of design.
The tricky elements of the Laver Cup format could go either way; only time will tell. But this is certain: one of the few clear and simple things tennis offers sports fans is the single-elimination draw. Fans, and even pros, have chafed against even benign round-robins. This is a big step from there.
Of course, you don’t have to know all the rules and details to enjoy the show. You can just follow along as the matches roll out, three singles matches per day, plus one doubles to wrap up each day’s session.
One of the best features of the Laver Cup is that the only concession to experimental scoring is elimination of the third set. If the players split sets, the decider will be a 10-point match-tiebreaker. That’s going to deliver more tennis than Fast4 or some of the other reduced-set formats, and produce more conventional tennis than no-ad scoring. The tennis simply will be more substantial.
Here are the team lineups, after the Juan Martin del Potro's injury-induced withdrawal from Team World:
The team that amasses 13 points first is the winner. Should the teams wind up deadlocked with 12 points each at the conclusion of the 12-match event, the entire tie will be decided by a single set of doubles, employing ad-scoring but a 10-point match-tiebreaker. Each team is free to use any two players to play that final, decisive doubles set.
The strongest feature of the Laver Cup may be that it was conceived and executed by the right people with largely the best intentions. That counts. For a lot. Certainly for more than the use of some tricky new scoring system or format.
Most importantly, it increases the odds that the players will bring the kind of passion and pride that will lift this event above the hit-and-giggle category of events. That done, the rest would be just a matter of tweaks and tuning.
Laver Cup coverage on Tennis Channel:
Friday, Sept. 22 7 a.m. - 11 a.m.: Singles 1 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.: Singles, doubles
Saturday, Sept. 23 7 a.m. - 11 a.m.: Singles 1 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.: Singles, doubles
Sunday, Sept. 24 6 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.: Singles (possible doubles decider)
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