On Tennis: A Promising Debut for the Laver Cup, Buoyed by Two Timeless Stars

On Tennis: A Promising Debut for the Laver Cup, Buoyed by Two Timeless Stars

By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY

PRAGUE — Against the percentages and their biological clocks, it has been one of the dreamiest of seasons for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. And despite how much of a disrupter Nick Kyrgios can be when he is truly in the mood for tennis, he could not quite provide the buzzkill this weekend.

Instead, the final match of this first Laver Cup reached a conclusion very much in tune with these times, as Federer held firm to defeat Kyrgios in three sets after facing a match point.

Federer then held his ground once more when Nadal rushed onto the court and leapt into his arms to celebrate Team Europe’s 15-9 victory over Team World, which was not as lopsided as that final score might indicate: Each victory Sunday was worth 3 points.

“It was a feeling that was on the same level as the biggest moments I’ve had in my career,” Federer said.

That is a major statement from a 36-year-old champion who has won a record 19 major singles titles, an Olympic gold medal and Switzerland’s first Davis Cup.

After all, the Laver Cup is technically an exhibition, even if it hardly felt like one. It offers no rankings points and has no official tour sanction, although it did offer major financial incentives to attract the stars. The taut matches played here will not — at least not yet — be part of the official record maintained by the ATP Tour.

Nor will Federer and Nadal’s first and perhaps only appearance as a doubles team, which was a feel-great moment on Saturday night for just about everyone except Jack Sock and Sam Querrey, the duo they so narrowly defeated.

But none of that means the sport should ignore what transpired in Prague in an O2 Arena that was sold out for all five sessions, drawing 83,273 fans over the event’s three days. Next stop: the United Center in Chicago in September 2018.

“You’ve got to be an idiot if you don’t think this is something that could be great for tennis,” said John McEnroe, the former world No. 1 who was a very engaged and sometimes profane captain for Team World. “I can’t imagine there’s a player that played — or didn’t play, for that matter, and watched it — who wouldn’t think this is something we should be supporting.”

That sounded like heat-of-the-moment optimism in a sport that remains deeply and perhaps permanently fragmented, with too many management companies and governing bodies guarding their piece of the action and gumming up the work of change.

Tennis Australia and the United States Tennis Association, the governing bodies for the sports in two nations that host Grand Slam events, were on board here as investors and partners. But the ATP Tour and the International Tennis Federation, which runs Davis Cup, were not.

“This is just a journey for us, the building of a new brand and building something for the sport,” said Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia. “We know it’s had its critics because there are other events this week, and we understand that. But I’ve always had the view tennis needs to do things that attract more audience, and are cool and a bit different.”

The Laver Cup certainly had more global reach this week than low-level ATP Events. Still, we will only know whether this competition really has legs when it tries to to thrive without Federer and Nadal near the peaks of their power; it remains to be seen whether the will and paychecks remain big enough through the years to draw the best players of future generations.

But the quality of the spectacle and the depth of the emotions were real in Prague.

“The only way it was ever going to be successful is if the players cared, and they did,” Federer said. “I think you see it. I think you see the happiness.”

The dejection, too. Kyrgios dropped to one knee shortly after his final forehand slammed into the net against Federer, and he was soon in tears, surrounded by supportive Team World compadres.

“When I’m playing for myself, sometimes I don’t put the greatest effort in,” Kyrgios said. “It just hurt, because I knew I didn’t want to let these guys down.”

Team World, whose only unifying quality is that its players must not be from Europe, could end up with an identity problem down the road. But it won the camaraderie competition this time, and did so partly with teen spirit.

Its youngest members were the Canadian Denis Shapovalov, 18, and the American Frances Tiafoe, 19, who, like 20-year-old Alexander Zverev on the European team, got an insider look at tennis greatness in Prague.

That could help them all going forward. But while the European squad quickly disbanded to catch flights after celebrating with the Laver Cup (and drinking from it), World stuck together, dancing and singing along to a portable speaker in the hallway outside the team room.

It helped that there were four Americans in the six-team squad, and that Sock and Kyrgios are good friends, and that McEnroe found a way to relate to the prodigiously unpredictable Kyrgios, who has struggled with motivation and focus.

“Well, I always sensed from afar that the guy is a good team guy,” McEnroe said. “I think we all see what he’s capable of. He’s an unbelievable talent, but let’s hope at the end of the day, he reaches his potential.”

Federer has certainly done justice to his, and his strong feelings after Europe’s victory here were also reflective of how a sense of ownership and commitment can amplify emotion.

This event was in large part his baby. It was driven by his agent Tony Godsick and by the event’s partners, but above all it was driven by Federer’s stature. Any tennis event with his support at this stage is already off to a flying start, and any event that has both Federer and Nadal in the lineup this year is a super-magnet.

As doubles teammates, they looked like naturals despite nearly colliding as Nadal retreated for an overhead during their match on Saturday. Their mutual delight in sharing the same side of the court was evident, and as they moved and communicated together — both 6-foot-1 in matching attire — they seemed more similar than different for a change.

Nadal was all in, too. But unlike Federer, he was unable to finish off Team World on Sunday. He seemed a little flat in his singles match, and John Isner was inspired — playing one of the finest and most relentlessly aggressive matches to beat Nadal for the first time, 7-5, 7-6(1), and cut Europe’s lead to 12-9.

If Kyrgios had beaten Federer, it would have tied the score at 12-12 and forced a one-set doubles playoff.

Federer, who likes things neat and tidy, kept it simple, closing out a 4-6, 7-6 (6) [11-9] victory after fighting off a match point at 8-9 in the decisive match tiebreaker.

“Nick was one point away from him and Jack going out there and playing Rafa and Roger, which would have been absolutely epic,” McEnroe said of the doubles set that almost happened. “I was just tasting it.”

But in the end, the first Laver Cup gave its combatants and its fractious sport plenty to savor.

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Published at Mon, 25 Sep 2017 03:55:13 +0000

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