Tennis’ greatest generations join forces for Laver Cup, pitting Europe against the world

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Five tennis legends came together in Manhattan on Wednesday to announce the new international competition. (Laver Cup/Ben Solomon)

NEW YORK—Late in today’s press conference that announced details of the inaugural Laver Cup tournament—scheduled for September 22-24, 2017 at the O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic—somebody asked tennis deity Rod Laver about why there seems to be so much respect among different tennis generations when it’s often lacking in other sports, where elders sometimes affect a back-in-the-day superiority.

Laver answered, almost immediately: “Tennis is a different kettle of fish. You’re one on one … when you look out on the court your whole life is just what you can accomplish in that one and a half or two hours.”

There are few people who have done more with those hours—although some have needed five or six—than the five men on stage at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, who boast sixty Grand Slam singles titles among them: Laver himself, clearly both tickled and humbled at having this event named for him; still-active greats Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal; and the chief rivals of the 1970s, Björn Borg and John McEnroe.

As Laver continued speaking, he improvised a short monologue that provided one of those moments that illustrate that no matter how much tennis one watches, or even how many players one interviews, there’s only so much those of us who don’t play the game at the level of the legends can know about the world they inhabit without having it spoon-fed to us. He explained that because you’re so alone on the court, you come to count on players you get to know on the tour, even though those players will, on certain days, be your opponents. He then described how that kinship extends to players of different ages, even though he might not necessarily know them all that well by conventional, social standards.

“I had the opportunity to watch John [McEnroe] play a lot of matches,” said Laver. "We never played against each other, but I think the feeling is like we’re good friends. We haven’t really been close enough for him to think of myself as being a friend, so it’s a unique situation you have with tennis players.”

The Laver Cup, conceived at Federer’s behest to honor the Rocket, will pit a European team and World team against each other in a format mixing singles and doubles over three days. It will take place annually except in years in which there is a Summer Olympics. Teams comprise the four top-ranked European players plus two captain’s picks against the same make-up of players from the rest of the world. Federer and Nadal have committed to playing for Europe in the inaugural Laver Cup, and Borg and McEnroe will captain, respectively, the European and World teams for the first three years of the competition.

There was, of course, no shortage of praise for Laver himself this morning. Even Nadal, who grew up on the island of Majorca, knew all about Laver from childhood because his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, “has a big passion for [him].” And Laver reiterated his well-known admiration for Nadal and Federer, and how much it meant to him that they would be participating in the first edition of his namesake event.

Beyond these expected moments, there were larger lessons to be gleaned about the special bond that exists among tennis’ greatest practitioners. Sure, at some level, today’s conference was a show of force and strength in rolling out The Laver Cup. But in bringing these three generations of players together, it also showed us something about that bond Laver spoke about, the one which unites even the fiercest competitors and extends across the generations.

The promise the Laver Cup holds for fans is, plain and simple, entertainment. But the subtext of today’s gathering was that there’s something extra there for the players. By coming together in a team format with colleagues with whom they normally wouldn’t join forces, there’s the opportunity for that precious camaraderie to flourish, for players to learn about each other and the game they share the same way that other, more conventional professionals learn at, say, conferences and seminars.

Case in point: The Laver Cup format allows for some tantalizing doubles pairings, including Federer and Nadal, and the two men seem primed to play together. “I think it’s going to be absolutely unbelievable,” said Federer. “I can’t wait to play doubles with him.” In particular, he expressed, delight at the prospect of teaming with, rather than facing down, Nadal’s forehand.

The comfort and pride the men took in each other’s presence today was palpable. Federer, who’s been coached by a few Aussies in his career, including the late Peter Carter and Laver’s contemporary Tony Roche, embodies the quiet class associated with the golden age of Australian tennis in a way that few players since have managed. Certainly, McEnroe’s era mostly lacked it, as evidenced by his comment when he and Borg joined the others today that “Björn is the only guy I get along with who I played against.” Contrasted with Laver’s remarks, one couldn’t help but feel a little sad for McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase and the rest of the gang. Sure it made for great theater, but on a human level one wishes they could taken something from each other off the court rather than grudges that, in some cases, still smolder today.

Things have doubtless been more civil since those famed bad-boy days when tempers routinely boiled over, but we haven’t been treated to anything like the balance of competitiveness and cordiality Federer and Nadal have put on for more than a decade now. Contrast the moment when Nadal threw his arm around an emotional Federer after besting him in the 2009 Australian Open final with the unfortunate show of personal antipathy Agassi and Sampras trotted out after their playing careers in the now-notorious Hit for Haiti benefit at Indian Wells in 2010. (That the drama played out in a doubles match that pitted Sampras and Federer against Agassi and Nadal, brought the younger duo’s special relationship into high relief.)

The most touching presence today was Borg, in part because he’s become such a scarce commodity. (“I don’t do many press conferences,” he offered with a wry smile.) His voice was soft as he called Laver his hero and described his captaincy of the European Laver Cup team as “a dream come true.” Of Federer and Nadal, he said, “Who doesn’t want to be the captain of these two players?” (He also harbors no illusions of his value to them, describing his role as supportive, “a mental thing.”)

Somebody asked about the already-taxing tennis schedule and any anticipated difficulty attracting players to participate in the Laver Cup. Federer shrugged it off.

“I hope it’s not going to be an issue… knowing how much respect Rod has in the game, I see this as a no-brainer for players, wanting to be a part of it. Why not spend an interesting, cool, fun weekend with all of the best players in the world, with those kind of captains? We’ll see, and the future’s going to tell. I’m going to be there. Rafa’s going to be there …”

It was a bookend to Laver’s opening remark today that, “Any of the top players, if they’re available, I personally want them to be there.”

Listening to Laver and Federer wax philosophical this morning, there was a sense that they know something about finding contentment in the trenches of professional tennis, and that it resides, at least in part, from communing with the people with whom they share the court. They became, by most people’s estimation, the two greatest male players in history with this outlook; what does the rest of the field have to lose?  he worst thing that happens is they spend, in Federer’s words, “an interesting cool, fun weekend with the best players in the world.”

Maybe, one wonders, that’s how he’s always looked at the Tour. Maybe he’s been playing his own private Laver Cup all along.

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