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Now in its AF (After Federer) Era, what lies ahead for Laver Cup?
Vancouver proved that one of the biggest challenges facing organizers will be to sell the public on an "exhibition" event that won’t necessarily attract all upper echelon players.
Published Sep 25, 2023
The Laver Cup, Roger Federer’s brainchild and parting gift to tennis, has only been played on six occasions. But this year’s edition marked the beginning of a new era for the wildly successful team event, and an incident on the first day of play seemed emblematic of the difference and, perhaps, what the future holds.
Felix Auger-Aliassime of Team World was playing Gael Monfils of Team Europe in just the third match of the competition, with Team World up two matches to none. Deep into the tight first set, Auger-Aliassime’s annoyance at the amount of time Monfils was taking between points boiled over. He complained to the umpire, asking if the event was an exhibition or regulated by the ATP’s rules governing how much time players can take between points. The umpire, caught unaware, tap danced around an answer.
“Are you telling me that’s normal? He can sit down for 30 seconds?” Auger-Aliassime asked. “I’m going to talk to him (Monfils), because I can play games, too.”
The scene that followed was tense. Monfils walked over to Auger-Aliassime to discuss matters in French. Team World Captain John McEnroe and some members of his squad gathered round protectively. But Monfils is a gentle soul. He explained to the young Canadian star of Team World that he—Monfils—took the event for what it was: an exhibition/special event. (True: It is not an ATP Tour event complete with rankings points.)
Returning to Team Europe’s bench, Monfils told his teammates, “If I don't want to play a tournament, I don't play a tournament," he said. Referring to the organizers, he added, "They called me and said, 'You can be free.' For me, I’m here to have fun."
The dispute resolved amicably, the men played on. But the interaction demonstrated how different Laver Cup was in Year One, AF (After Federer). Sure, the founder was on hand, as were those hoary staples of baby boomers everywhere, Team Europe coach Bjorn Borg and Team World maestro John McEnroe. But the event this year featured much less glitz and more grit, as a determined Team World ran roughshod over a conspicuously less truculent opponent, losing just one match in a 13-2 rout.
“Team World really brought the energy,” said rookie Ben Shelton, a winner in three key matches. Added Team World captain John McEnroe, “We had great team spirit. Really stepped up.”
The result also left a question hanging: Now that the celebrity dog-and-pony show of previous Laver Cup meetings featuring the game’s mega-stars is a thing of the past, where is the special event headed?
It’s discouraging that after last year’s touching and sometimes teary farewell to Federer, there was such a drop-off in participation by elite players this time around. There wasn’t a single Grand Slam singles champion on either team (Last year, Team Europe players brought a ridiculous 68 Grand Slam singles titles to the party). Until this year, the general vibe at Laver Cup was similar to that of a concert by a rock-and-roll supergroup. But that band has broken up.
On the flip side, the intensity brought to the event by Team World made for exciting, compelling viewing. The bulk of the squad consisted of players from the U.S., a tightly-knit group who are more invested in—and inspired by—team play. After a nearly flawless performance against Team Europe’s Andrey Rublev (at No. 6, the highest-ranking player on either squad), Taylor Fritz (the ATP No. 8) might have been speaking for the entire team, as well as Auger-Aliassime—the unofficial MVP in last year’s breakthrough win over Europe—when he said:
“Any type of team environment alway elevates my game. I feel like I always play better because I have the team cheering for me. I can get pumped up, excited to play for them. It just adds more pressure and fire, and I think I play better in those situations.”
The key challenge looming for the architects of Laver Cup will be selling the public on a special event that, like the reimagined Davis Cup, won’t necessarily attract all upper echelon players. The event certainly has a leg up due to the global buzz and feel-good atmosphere generated by earlier renditions, but can Laver Cup support flourish without featuring the likes of Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas?
The format certainly features some elements that seem in keeping with the tastes and desires of the times. The three-day, long-weekend configuration is big plus. The Match Tiebreaker that takes the place of a third set when necessary may drive traditionalists nuts, but it is ideal for the compressed format. And watching the team interactions on the respective benches and hearing some of the palaver that goes on is an enormous bonus, for the largest audience: television viewers.
The format does have one dodgy, perhaps unavoidable element: The points that a team earns for each win escalates from Friday through Sunday (one, two and three points per win, respectively). It ensures that the outcome of the event can’t be determined until the final day. That makes for some intriguing decisions about the line-ups for each day. It also goes against the sensibility of one-on-one (or doubles) competition.
Tennis has been maintaining and building on tradition in a world that appears to be changing all around it. Boomers share Federer and McEnroe’s reverence for that international treasure, Rod Laver. But will young fans and even rising players understand the magic in that name, or Federer’s for that matter, as time goes on?
Team World appeared to have a better understanding than Team Europe of the idea that while Laver Cup may be an “exhibition,” it can be fought over in earnest. In fact, if Laver Cup is to prosper in the AF era, it may be absolutely essential for both teams—and all players—to recognize that.