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The Happy Team Competition: Wide range of stylists making own mark at Laver Cup
Even with the absence of the Big Three, the top players have responded heartily to point after point of excellent tennis.
Published Sep 26, 2021
As the fourth edition of the Laver Cup got underway, many questions surfaced. How would it come off without any of the Big Three participating? Two years after the Laver Cup was last played, how would fans engage with the tennis? What do players make of it all? And in the bigger picture, how best to define this one-of-a-kind event?
Marquee value had been the primary initial sell. Federer was the headliner those first three years, joined twice by Rafael Nadal, once by Novak Djokovic. This year, though, Nadal and Djokovic were gone, Federer’s presence limited to nothing more than a surprise guest appearance, an iconic royal alongside his fellow titan, Rod Laver.
But amid the absence of the Big Three, others this year have stepped up to reveal a long-marinating and now conclusive reality: Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have raised the bar to extraordinary heights. This trio’s excellence has placed heavy demands on all others. Those who wish to fill their shoes as Grand Slam champions must bring a wide range of physical, mental and tactical skills. From the firepower of Matteo Berrettini, to the grit of Diego Schwartzman, the zest of Stefanos Tsitsipas and the guile of Daniil Medvedev, perhaps the biggest legacy the Big Three have left is to bequeath us an exceptionally wide range of stylists, each in their own way seeking to answer the questions this trio of greats have posed for so long.
As seen constantly in the first two days of this year’s Laver Cup, fans have responded heartily to point after point of excellent tennis. Is Laver Cup an exhibition? Hardly, as it lacks the frivolity those events often convey. Is Laver Cup a competition? Yes, but also, fitting with Federer’s affable spirit, one lacking the ruthless, zero-sum dimension that accompanies tournament life.
Though players will be beaten in Laver Cup matches, no one walks off the court a loser. There is always another teammate to cheer on or talk to, always another chance to gain support from legendary captains Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe – ice calm Swede and fiery American, once great rivals, forever dear friends, chatting with each other between matches as calmly as two mates on a Saturday morning at their local club (which, in a way, all tennis venues are for superstars like Borg and McEnroe).
Where else can you see Andrey Rublev smiling while watching a tiebreaker? Or a bespectacled Feliciano Lopez, looking like the coolest literature professor ever? Or Laver Cup newcomers like Reilly Opelka, celebrating his captain’s leadership qualities. “I mean, one thing that you can tell what made Johnny Mac so great with his mindset, he’s very optimistic,” said Opelka following his opening day 6-3, 7-6 (4) loss to Casper Rudd. Or as Berrettini said after taking nearly three hours to beat Felix Auger-Aliassime, 6-7 (3), 7-5, 10-8 in a super tiebreaker, “It’s a tough battle against a good friend.” Then there’s Nick Kyrgios, far happier caring for others than grappling with his own desires.
Day one ended with Team Europe leading Team World 3-1. But one of Laver Cup’s many attributes is its scoring system. Wins count one point on the first day, two on the second and three on the third, a total of 13 points required for victory. On day two, Team Europe continued to dominate when Tsitsipas comfortably subdued Kyrgios, 6-3, 6-4. Next came a lively battle between John Isner and Alexander Zverev, the German withstanding 22 aces from the American to win 7-6 (5), 6-7 (6), 10-5.
Even as Isner’s loss put Team World way down at 7-1, the mutual good vibes continued. “I think this atmosphere, it’s easy to bring out the best in everyone, and Sascha, I think it certainly brings out the best in him,” said Isner. “He loves to compete and so do I, and think that’s what makes for a good atmosphere and a good tennis match between us too.” Next up, showing much of the airtight prowess that took him to the US Open title less than two weeks ago, Medvedev handily dispatched Denis Shapovalov, 6-4, 6-0. Never before at Laver Cup had a team taken a 9-1 lead.
It was past 9:00 p.m. when the Team World duo of Isner and Kyrgios began their match versus Team Europe’s team of Tsitsipas and Rublev. Could Team World salvage at least one win on this second day of competition? Nearly two hours later, the answer was no, provided by the Europeans in the form of a 6-7 (8), 6-3, 10-5 victory. Trailing 5-1 in the opening set tiebreaker, Isner-Kyrgios eventually fought off three set points to take the first set. But in time, the combined firepower of Tsitsipas and Rublev proved too much.
Down 11-1, Team World was faced with an unprecedented challenge: Win all four matches on Sunday. It wasn’t going to be easy. But defeat was hardly likely to propel an inquiry into why one region of the world was better than another or what its player development strategy was. Nor would any result – positive or negative -- trigger conjecture about the arc of a particular player’s career. Like the NBA All-Star Game or NFL Pro Bowl, define Laver Cup most of all as a showcase of skill and, rare for pro tennis, overt camaraderie. As Yannick Noah once said, “Of course we all love each other. We just don’t want to admit it.” Federer once dubbed Laver’s native major, “The Happy Slam.” Call Laver Cup, “The Happy Team Competition.”