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Federer and Nadal make Laver Cup shine, for now, on a crowded calendar

Nadal and Federer not only competed but coached: filling the vast boreal silence left by captain Bjorn Borg as they counseled each other and seemingly any other European within earshot.

By: New York Times |
Updated: September 24, 2019 3:19:30 pm
Team Europe’s Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer celebrate during the singles match between Team Europe’s Dominic Thiem and Team World’s Denis Shapovalov. (Source: Reuters)

Ultimately, it is immaterial whether you call the Laver Cup an exhibition or grace it with a weightier label.

What counts most at this muddled stage in men’s tennis is that the Laver Cup clearly matters to many leading players — and not just its co-creator Roger Federer, who played like a champ and swore like a sailor with the trophy on the line Sunday.

The Cup fires players up and chokes them up while paying them very well and selling out arenas on, so far, two continents. What’s not to like?

That passion, like the big money required to stage this high-end tennis circus, is a fragile commodity, however, and it will be up to future stars to determine what floats or sinks amid tennis’ new team-event logjam.

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Next up in the crowded category: The revamped Davis Cup Finals in Madrid, from Nov. 18-24. That is followed closely by the revived ATP Cup in Australia in early January, just ahead of 2020’s first Grand Slam tournament: The Australian Open.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal high five during the opening ceremony as Alexander Zverev looks on. (Source: Reuters)

The Laver Cup was a big hit once again in its third year, this time in Federer’s home country Switzerland, where he led a European team — just barely — to a 13-11 victory over an underdog squad representing the rest of the world.

“It’s a bummer,” said John McEnroe, three times a losing captain of the world team. “But it’s an awesome event.”

Are three such events too many? So it seems, particularly with the Davis Cup finals and ATP Cup so similar in format — nation-based teams, a single week, best-of-three sets — and so close on the calendar (though Davis Cup’s organizers, at least, are eager to change its dates in the future).

“I think only two out of the three will survive,” said Milos Raonic, the Canadian star who, for now, plans to play in all three.

But Patrick McEnroe, John’s brother and a former U.S. Davis Cup captain, sees the surge in team events as a potential antidote to what ails the game. Why not add even more?

“To me, we’re struggling with the smaller events in tennis in general, not just in America,” said McEnroe, Team World’s assistant captain.

“I turn on the TV all the time for a 250 or 500, and sometimes there’s 10 people in the stands,” he added, referring to low-level ATP Tour tournaments. “I think events like Laver Cup are a way to energize people to get interested in tennis. The players love it. The fans love it. As long as the players can make money and have ranking points, which are going to be part of the ATP Cup, it’s a no-brainer.”

From left, Team Europe’s Captain Bjoern Borg, Fabio Fognini, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer speak during Fognini’s match against Team World’s Jack Sock at the Laver Cup tennis event, in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. (Source: AP)

The Laver Cup has been a disrupter in part because it is difficult to categorize. It is a social-media show and group hug across the generations but also a pressure cooker (there was even a lineup controversy Sunday).

Is there some posturing on changeovers and elsewhere with the cameras rolling? Sure. But with matches at stake, the body language does not lie: flung rackets and downcast eyes after defeats, reflexive screams of release after victories.

“You can clearly see it’s not an exhibition,” said John Isner, the top-ranked American man, who has played in all three Laver Cups. “We take this seriously. We want to win that thing.”

With only 12 players involved, some by invitation, it is hard to see Laver Cup ever awarding ranking points. But to acquire full credibility it needs to become a can’t-miss event for players who earn a spot based on ranking. Kei Nishikori, the Japanese star who should be a pillar of Team World, has yet to participate. No. 1 Novak Djokovic bowed out this year even before he got injured.

In contrast, players who qualify for the Ryder Cup, the golf event that inspired Laver Cup, very rarely decline the honor. Laver Cup also might want to cut down on captain’s picks: three for a six-man squad only encourages the exhibition perception.

But there was no entertainment issue here in Geneva. Federer and Nadal remain an irresistible duo even if Nadal, gung-ho but still hurting after his U.S. Open victory, could only manage one full day of play before a recurring left hand problem forced him to withdraw before the final matches on Sunday. With his wedding to Maria Francisca Perelló set for Oct. 19 in Mallorca, Nadal may not compete again until the Paris Masters later that month.

Tennis – Laver Cup – Palexpo, Geneva, Switzerland – September 21, 2019 Team Europe’s Rafael Nadal is spoken to by Roger Federer during his singles match against Team World’s Milos Raonic REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

But he made time for Laver Cup, where he and Federer not only competed but coached: filling the vast boreal silence left by captain Bjorn Borg as they counseled each other and seemingly any other European within earshot. It was must-watch content and will only encourage those who want to bring in-match coaching to Grand Slam tournaments and the ATP Tour.

Best to remember, though, that Federer and Nadal are what made that dynamic must-watch and that saturating the market has its own risks. On-court coaching jibes with the collective vibe of team events, whereas at Grand Slam level it undermines the beauty and tradition of a champion solving problems on his or her own.

There is room for both models in tennis, just as there should always be room for a great event (too many humdrum ones exist already).

Laver Cup remains tantalizing, and would be even more so if Federer were not 38.

“I think it’s something very positive, something new, something that is fresh for our sport,” said Nadal, 33, calling for the next generation to support it.

It drew more than 80,000 spectators over three days at Geneva’s Palexpo, just as it sold out arenas in Prague in 2017 and Chicago in 2018. It will head to Boston’s TD Garden in 2020, an Olympic year that was originally supposed to be an off year for the event. But plans changed when the market demand became clear — as did Davis Cup organizers’ desire to migrate into Laver Cup’s September slot.

Federer increasingly has used his clout to defend the event: He helped convince the ATP to make it part of its official calendar, angering some tournament directors.

Tennis – Laver Cup – Palexpo, Geneva, Switzerland – September 22, 2019 Team Europe captain Bjorn Borg, vice-captain Thomas Enqvist, Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Fabio Fognini, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal pose with the trophy after they win the Laver Cup REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

He was clearly eager to mark the moment in Geneva, and was not far off his flowing, fast-twitch best in singles on the quick surface. He beat Nick Kyrgios in a big-bang duel on Saturday and then blinked last against Isner in a must-win match on Sunday. Most indelibly, he then pumped up Alexander Zverev, the young German star, before his decisive match tiebreaker against Raonic with a salty pep talk backstage.

“I want a ‘Let’s go’ and a ‘Come on’ for every point you win,” Federer barked at Zverev. “I don’t want to see any negative stuff.” (A few choice words have been omitted here).

Nadal, close behind, chimed in about projecting positivity, too. It was all a reminder that Federer’s and Nadal’s success is not just based in talent, diligence and great support teams but in cup-half-full mentalities.

Zverev, in the midst of a downbeat 2019, got the message just in time and then got the reward: getting engulfed by Borg, Federer, Nadal and the rest after his final winner.

That was a lot of star power in just one pile, but then Laver Cup will require so much more of it in the years ahead if it is to buck the odds, and Federer’s retirement.

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