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Captain Federer? Five thoughts on Laver Cup now, and in the future
Shelton’s a natural, Rublev’s a glue guy, Monfils gets ambushed, and more on the event's sixth edition in Vancouver.
Published Sep 26, 2023
On the first night of this year’s Laver Cup in Vancouver, Felix Auger-Aliassime asked a question that many of us have pondered over the years:
“Are we playing by ATP rules?” the Canadian said to the chair umpire early in his evening-session match with Gael Monfils. “Or is this an exhibition?”
Laver Cup is both, of course: On the court, it’s competition-driven; on the sidelines and during changeovers, it’s personality-driven. Even after seven years, though, that distinction isn’t easy to make for tennis people—including Auger-Aliassime and Monfils.
When Monfils sat down behind a linesman to jokingly protest a missed call, many in the crowd laughed. But the all-business FAA wasn’t one of them. He wouldn’t accept any extra delays, or any exo-style frivolity. Monfils, a 37-year-old Laver Cup rookie who was told he would be able to “play free” during the event, was left confused as to why he was there in the first place. Upset by the confrontation, he basically tanked from there.
I can understand that FAA didn’t want the match to devolve into a shenanigan-fest, but I also didn’t think Monfils had gone overboard with his antics. Up to that point, he was into the match and competing, and actually seemed annoyed by a couple of bad calls. Either way, the incident set a tone of intensity—and ultimately quality—on the Team World side that Team Europe never matched. Two years ago, Europe beat World 14-1 in Boston. This weekend in Vancouver, World turned the tables 13-2.
Team World’s early clinch wasn’t ideal for spectators, who lost nearly all of Sunday’s matches. Also less than ideal was the absence of the three best players in Europe, or anywhere else: Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev. Still, for hardcore fans, there was a lot to enjoy. Even without the Big 3 or Alcaraz, Laver Cup’s charged atmosphere and spirit of camaraderie remained intact. As always, we got to see the players interact in a way that we don’t anywhere else. While the stars may not have aligned for the event this year, the underlying structure seems built to last.
With Laver Cup VII in the books, here are five thoughts on its present and future.
Ben Shelton is a natural—as hero and villain
The 20-year-old Shelton consolidated his US Open gains by winning the opening singles on Friday, and a doubles match on Saturday and Sunday. He was active and upbeat on the bench, like any recent college player would be. Most important, he showed an ability to come up clutch. Down early in a first-set tiebreaker to Arthur Fils, Shelton turned it on and won the last five points for the set. He’s a serve bomber, but not a servebot. From an American-fan perspective, it was good to see another young player from the States be welcomed into the ATP’s elite.
Shelton also comes with a bonus: He can irritate his opponents. We saw that with Novak Djokovic at the Open, and this weekend his loud, high-pitched “YEAH!”s seemed tailor-made to get under the skins of his Team Europe opponents. Unlike Djokovic, they never got their revenge.
Andrey Rublev is a glue guy
The Russian, universally liked on tour, didn’t win any matches this weekend, but he showed his chops as an enthusiastic and empathetic teammate. He was the first to leap—hair flying—off the bench when Team Europe won a point, and the only one to get down on his knees to beg Monfils to give his best. That effort proved to be futile, but I liked what Rublev said to Monfils later: “Fight to the end. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”
On the Team World side, I also liked hearing Taylor Fritz’s pithy praise for his fellow players’ tactics, and Chris Eubanks’ more detailed advice. Eubanks is a coach in the making.
The stat game “rose” a notch
Tennis stats—first-serve percentage, winners, unforced errors, etc.— typically don’t reveal much that you can’t see for yourself. But Laver Cup came up with an insightful one: Percentage of balls that the players were taking on the rise. It’s an easy way to measure aggressiveness vs. defensiveness. After those numbers flashed, I watched the matches with an eye for who moving forward to hit, and who was moving backward. Monfils was doing a lot of the latter, which seemed, suddenly, to explain a lot about his career.
Could the post-Federer era of Laver Cup need…a little more Federer
When the competition was over, British tennis writer Stuart Fraser shared a post from a fan who has attended numerous Laver Cups, including this weekend’s. She made a suggestion for the future that I hadn’t thought of, but which makes total sense: Replace Borg and McEnroe as captains with Federer and Andy Roddick (assuming he’s willing).
Yes, Borg is a supreme legend, but he offers nothing personality-wise, especially compared to the interest that Federer would bring in the captain’s seat. McEnroe does have personality, but Roddick would likely relate better to this generation of players, and his insights into today’s game would be welcome.
What’s in store for Berlin in 2024?
Laver Cup will land in the German capital next September. Can it avoid another blowout? That location will be more convenient for Team Europe than Team World, but with the Asian circuit resurrected, it may continue to be tougher for the event to attract players like Alcaraz, Medvedev, Jannik Sinner, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, all of whom opted to play events in China that offer ranking points this year. We also don’t know what will happen with the Davis Cup schedule going forward.
Federer said he’d like to see Djokovic return, and maybe that can happen in Berlin. The big fish, of course, is Alcaraz, whose presence was sorely missed in Vancouver. Bringing him into the fold would likely guarantee Laver Cup’s success for years to come.
One legend, Federer, built it and named it after another, Laver. It would only be fitting if this unique, personality-driven event was carried forward by the game’s next great player and personality.