Laver Cup puts personality, camaraderie and fun on full display

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Team Europe wins the Laver Cup: 

There are special events in sports, like Davis Cup and Ryder Cup, that we watch for the competition. There are others, like the NBA All-Star Game, that we watch for the entertainment value. And then there’s Laver Cup, where many of us split the difference.

Has there ever been an event in which viewers spend so much time trying to decipher where the entertainment ends and the competition begins? Where we find ourselves engrossed by the drama of the matches and the infectious intensity of the players, even as we secretly wonder if the fix is in?

It’s a credit to Laver Cup’s promoters and players that, in a sport with a wide traditionalist streak, they’ve made so many people tune in for, and talk about, an exhibition so quickly. For a second straight year, Laver Cup filled a major arena in a tennis-starved city—Prague in 2017, Chicago in 2018—for three long days of tennis. For a second straight year, it created an energy in the building that doesn’t exist at most tour events, produced viral social-media moments involving the sport’s celebrities, and offered a TV-friendly mix of serious match-play and sideline frivolity. Even for curmudgeonly fans who learned to tune out exhibitions long ago—like yours truly—it was hard to turn our noses up at Laver Cup.

And for a second straight year, Team Europe beat Team World. Did the result matter? I watched multiple hours of Laver Cup this weekend, and still had trouble remembering who was on which team. That may change as the event ages, and a real, competitive, antagonistic tradition between the two sides develops, the way it has in Ryder Cup. If, say, Europe continues to dominate, the World side may get serious about not wanting to be embarrassed every September. For now, though, fun and brotherhood reign, the way they do during All-Star weekends. It seems doubtful that clinching the Laver Cup for Europe made Alexander Zverev—despite his “I-just-won-Wimbledon!” reaction—feel much better about his mediocre Grand Slam results in 2018, the way clinching a Davis Cup title for Germany surely would have.

Alexander Zverev clinches the 2018 Laver Cup:

But that’s OK. Tennis fans get plenty of full-fledged competition during the 11-month tour calendar. At this early stage in its existence, Laver Cup is valuable because it offers a glimpse of what we don’t get to see enough of over the course of the season: personality. Watching the top players transform themselves into a cheer squad for three days reminded me of how buttoned-up, how solitary, how weighty and minimalist a normal tennis broadcast is—for some fans, even the sight of coaching is a sin. And that’s how we like it: Tennis is a one-on-one fight, a theater of pure competition, with no time or space for clowning around. But that seriousness comes with a price. Unlike in team sports, tennis fans don’t see much in the way of camaraderie, or sideline support. We don’t see the players interacting with each other casually, celebrating each other’s brilliance, consoling each other in defeat, or just hanging out. All of that is hidden behind the scenes; even in Davis Cup or Fed Cup, it mostly happens off camera.

Laver Cup’s greatest innovation is to get the player-cheerleaders on the court and on camera, to turn them all into coaches, and to tell them there are no limits to their enthusiasm. As a tennis fan of 40-odd years, the biggest shock of the weekend was seeing Jack Sock run onto the other team’s side of the court to celebrate a winning point by someone from his own team. But seeing the normally rigid boundaries of tennis crossed is part of the fun of Laver Cup. Tennis is a game of one-on-one competition, but it’s also a sport of individual personalities that people connect with as if they’re members of their own families.

Fans of Roger or Rafa or Novak or Sascha can never get enough of seeing them in candid moments. Laver Cup delivers those moments, and shows off those personalities in a more relaxed, social setting, where the stakes aren’t quite as high, where the goal for the players is both to compete against each other, and to sell the competition together. More memorable than the result, or any of the matches themselves, were the new bits of personality we saw revealed.

Roger Federer wins a critical Day 3 singles rubber over John Isner: 

On Friday, Diego Schwartzman showed a crowd-pleasing side in his loss to David Goffin that may not have always been apparent. Cupping his ear for more support from the “home” crowd, the Argentine got the weekend off to a suitably energetic start. Where Davis Cup gives lesser-known players a chance to shine in competition, Laver Cup gives them a chance to show off their their appeal to fans, and hopefully to earn a few new ones.

Through the weekend, we saw Federer and Djokovic interact as friendly teammates for the first time. They played doubles, and chatted during Djokovic’s loss to Kevin Anderson. Djokovic improvised a ballet cheer for Federer, and also hit him in the back with a ball in doubles. Djokovic’s entertainer’s streak is a natural fit for Laver Cup, and, even as one of the game’s certified GOAT’s, he had no trouble finding his place in what is essentially Federer’s show.

We also saw some mentoring between Federer and Zverev. They lost a close doubles match on Sunday, and Federer warned the potential heir to his throne about bad body language. “They love it when you’re negative,” he said of Zverev’s opponents. It’s interesting to hear that kind of thought process straight from Federer’s mouth.

Roger Federer gets hit by Novak Djokovic on the doubles court: 

We saw Jack Sock continue to struggle in singles, but find a role for himself, and for his game. He was Head Cheerleader for the World team, and his whirling celebrations gave the whole event a looser vibe. More important, Sock showed how much value his game—primarily his dipping, rocketing forehand—brings to a doubles team.

We even saw Kyle Edmund, the most impassive of the bunch, come out of his shell by weekend’s end—sort of. During Team Europe’s victory dance, Edmund could be seen running into his teammates like a battering ram and nearly knocking them to the ground. As far as expressions of joy go, it’s a start.

Finally, we saw Zverev remind us again what makes him a special player, when he closed the competition with the shot of the weekend. It came late in his match tiebreaker against Kevin Anderson. When Anderson rushed the net, Zverev surprised him with a topspin lob; Anderson could only hang his head as he watched it land two feet inside the baseline. That’s a skill shot, the kind that elevates you above the rest of the pack, and something that can’t be faked. While this wasn’t Zverev’s biggest moment of 2018, it may be one that he can call on in the future, when the stakes really are at their highest.

Competition, or entertainment? By that point on Sunday, it was too late to try to tell, and too late to care. Laver Cup offers an alternative men’s-tennis universe that the traditional sport is better for having.

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