What we learned about Federer, Nadal, McEnroe and the new Laver Cup

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The Laver Cup showed that tradition and innovation can really can co-exist peacefully in tennis—and so can Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, as teammates. (AP)

“Tennis doesn’t have an idea problem,” former US Open tournament director Arlen Kantarian told a group of editors at TENNIS Magazine nearly 20 years ago. “It has a get-it-done problem.”

The idea, and the question, we were discussing that day was an age-old one: Why doesn’t tennis have its version of the Ryder Cup? During the 1990s, golf’s signature, biennial team competition between the United States and Europe had become must-see television for even the most casual sports fans. Yet tennis remained stumped as to how to replicate it. Trying to navigate around established team events like Davis Cup and Fed Cup, and the sport’s alphabet soup of governing bodies, was too difficult even for Kantarian, a hard-charging promoter and former NFL executive who had been brought in by the USTA to try to upset the pro-game apple cart. More than a decade after his exit, tennis’ get-it-done problem remained.

And then, suddenly, over the course of the last three days, the sport got it done. The Laver Cup, which made its debut from Friday to Sunday, is likely the closest thing that tennis will ever have to a Ryder Cup. The format was similar—Team Europe took on Team World in a fast-paced, three-day competition—and so was the unusual intensity that format generated. Like their peers in golf, tennis’ top male pros made the most of their opportunity to cross national boundaries, root openly for each other, and show the emotions that their formal, individualistic sports normally force them to keep in check. You can’t argue with the result: 83,273 paying customers and five sold-out sessions at the O2 Arena in Prague, worldwide headlines and a tidal wave of bro-mantic social-media content. The Laver Cup may have been the most fan-friendly new tennis event in the 50-year history of the Open era.

Court Report—Team Europe wins the inaugural Laver Cup:

What changed? The originating force behind Laver Cup was Roger Federer’s agent, Tony Godsick. With establishment support from the USTA and Tennis Australia, promoters had the means to stage a world-class event at a major arena, in a city starved for tennis. But it was Federer’s prestige, with players, fans and governing bodies, that made the difference. Would Rafael Nadal have made the trip to Prague two weeks after winning the US Open for an event other than Federer’s? Would John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg have served as captains? Would Nick Kyrgios and his fellow Team Worlders have turned themselves into full-time cheerleaders for three days? Would Laver have put his name on the project? It’s impossible to say for sure, but the fact is that none of these things had ever happened before. Tennis is still an alphabet soup of governing bodies, but one thing everyone in the the sport can agree on is Roger Federer.

The upshot is that, for the first time in a long time, we saw something entirely new under the tennis sun—or under the tennis roof—in Prague. Here are four things we learned in the short lifespan of the inaugural Laver Cup:

*****

Not All Exos are Created Equal
In most cases, if a tennis exhibition finishes with a final-set tiebreaker and ends in maximally dramatic fashion, it’s a good bet that the fix was in—in exos, the players aren’t paid to win; they’re paid to give the fans as much entertainment as possible. Laver Cup did indeed end in maximally dramatic fashion, with the weekend’s highest-profile match-up, between Federer and Kyrgios, coming down to an 11-9 match tiebreaker for all the marbles. (Had Kyrgios won, Team World—which needed to win at least three of Sunday’s four matches to have a chance at victory—would have forced a deciding doubles match for the Laver Cup.) But if the fix was in, the players did an exceedingly good job of convincing us otherwise. Nadal, to cite one example, was overjoyed after beating Jack Sock and disconsolate losing to John Isner; and after the final point, he nearly put Federer’s back out again when he leaped into his arms.

I’m guessing that the players began the weekend wanting to do what they could to support Federer’s event, and that as the matches progressed, the competitive juices flowed and their enthusiasm for it became more real. Did Federer really believe, as he said, that winning gave him “a feeling that was on the same level as the biggest moments in my career”? That’s a little hard to believe. But the players’ early insistence that this was a legitimate competition turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now the template—Laver Cup may not be Davis Cup yet, but it isn’t a typical exo, either—has been set.

Highlights—Team World nearly pulls off a stunning Sunday rally:

There’s Room in Tennis for Tradition and Innovation
Too often the sport reacts to any suggestion of change as if it’s an either-or, zero-sum, my-way-or-the-highway proposition. “Down with best of five!” “Coaching goes against what the game is all about,” “No way to no-ad,” “Shorter formats aren’t ‘real tennis.’” The truth is, there has never been one, correct, pure, superior version of the game. Matches played with super-tiebreakers can be just as exciting, or just as boring, as traditional five-setters. And while there’s no on-court coaching on the ATP tour, tennis has never been a purely individual sport. Coaching exists in Davis Cup and Fed Cup, in college and high-school matches, and in adult leagues; it also happens every time someone makes a suggestion to his or her doubles partner. Just as important, anyone who has ever played with a coach on the sideline knows that winning and losing is always in the player’s hands, and the player’s hands alone.

At the pro level, the season is long enough to leave room for tradition and innovation. We can have coaching during WTA matches, but keep the more history-minded Slams free of it. We can have best-of-five at the majors, and still experiment with shorter formats elsewhere. We can enjoy the brand-new Laver Cup, without forgetting about the century-old Davis Cup. In 2017, tennis has begun to realize that experimentation won’t be the death of the sport. The US Open tried a shot clock, the college game has shortened its formats and the ATP’s NextGen finals in Milan will throw everything, plus the kitchen sink, into the mix.

Laver Cup did an especially good job of recognizing that old and new can and should co-exist. The event honored legends like Laver, Borg, and McEnroe, and used regular sets and deuce games. But it also sped things up with match tiebreakers in place of a third sets; put singles players together in new doubles tandems (most notably Federer and Nadal); and encouraged coaching and fanboy-ing from everyone involved. 

John McEnroe Should Be Coaching U.S. Players
McEnroe lobbied for years to be the U.S. Davis Cup captain, then gave it up when winning proved to be too difficult. He helped Milos Raonic reach the Wimbledon final last year, only to give that up when it conflicted with his work as a commentator. It’s easy to understand his decision—commentating is easier—but watching McEnroe over the weekend made me think that he could make a difference in the careers of young players like Sock and Kyrgios.

Like other super-coaches, it wasn’t what McEnroe said tactically that mattered. Instead, it was the no-excuses urgency he brought to his conversations. The best thing that former Grand Slam champion or No. 1-ranked players can offer is their complete lack of empathy for anyone who doesn’t believe he can win a Slam or become No. 1, and that was true of McEnroe’s coaching this weekend. Sock and Kyrgios responded to his stern talk with more enthusiasm and positive energy than they’ve showed anywhere before.

Rog and Rafa Can Still Learn New Tricks
Thirteen years after their first singles match against each other, Nadal and Federer player their first doubles match together. They began with a hiccup or two; Nadal nearly decapitated Federer when he reached back for an overhead. But they managed to win that match, and to squeak past the much younger Kyrgios and Sock, 11-9 in match tiebreakers, in singles. In between, they talked tactics, high-fived, laughed, hugged, cheered for each other, and sprayed themselves with champagne when it was over. Nadal and Federer seemed to revel in the chance to try out a new relationship, one where they could put their all-time talents together rather than use them against each other.

Laver Cup showed us there can be something—many things—new under the tennis sun. The best of them was seeing that Rafa and Roger make as much sense as teammates as they do rivals.

Court Report—Federer and Nadal make a victorious doubles debut:

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