Put John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg in the captains’ chairs; have Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal out on court as team mates facing opposition that includes two of the game’s most talented young stars in Nick Kyrgios and Denis Shapovalov and you have a recipe for success.
That is what is in store for Czech tennis fans and a worldwide TV audience here at the huge 02 Arena as the Laver Cup, pitting Europe against The Rest of the World, kicks off here this weekend with the man himself, the great Grand Slammer Rod Laver, in attendance.
The recipe is good, mostly because of the heavyweight names that have agreed to lend credence to this bold experiment and partially because it is new and potentially exciting. But if there is any hint that the players are here for a nice pay day in a beautiful city, the knives, which are already being sharpened among some of the game’s entities who view this venture as a threat, will be flashing.
Sitting in on the initial press conferences and talking to individual players, it became abundantly clear that everyone is aware of the danger of the Laver Cup being dismissed as an exhibition.
“Exhibition? No, not an exhibition at all,” said Nadal, a competitor to his finger tips. “I wake up today at 4.00 am to practice. I don’t practice before an exhibition match, normally, no.”
John Isner who, with Sam Querrey will bring most of the experience to the Rest of the World team, agreed. “We’re not going to treat it as an exhibition or anything like,” he said. “This is real life tennis and there is a lot on the line.”
Federer, without whose enthusiasm and commitment to the project the Laver Cup would never have got off the ground, quickly pointed out that the teams were not even staying at the same hotel. “It’s going to be fun but we’re here to compete,” said the Swiss who has won 19 Grand Slam titles.
Nick Kyrgios, who showed just how competitive he can be in a team format while trying his best to save Australia from defeat at the hands of Belgium in the Davis Cup semi-final last week end, seemed to relish the chance to play for another team. “We don’t how it’s going to work out because everything is so new but 100% we’re taking it seriously,” said the Aussie who is looking forward to partnering with his American pal Jack Sock in the doubles.
Scepticism about ventures like this is nothing new. Jack Kramer constantly had to face taunts that matches on his pro tour in the 1950’s were fixed but few dared suggest it to his face. Someone was foolish enough to try the suggestion on Pancho Gonzalez and nearly had to run for his life. When Rod Laver signed on to the Kramer tour in 1962, he had just won the Grand Slam and was expected to immediately make his mark. But his boyhood idol, Lew Hoad, wasn’t going to allow Laver an easy passage into the pro ranks and beat him badly for the first several matches they played. Pride was at stake and when you are dealing with champions of this caliber – and the Laver Cup is stacked with them – no one is going to get an easy ride.
To this generation, the format seems fresh and, to an extent, it is. However, the intercontinental aspect is not new. In partnership with Manolo Santana, I ran a Europe v Latin America match in Madrid in the late seventies and it was a big success. On the Saturday night we had a capacity crowd of 7,000 which included Manolo’s squash partner, who just happened to be the King of Spain.
Ilie Nastase, Adriano Panatta and Mark Cox were on the European team while Guillermo Vilas, Victor Pecci and Jaime Fillol played for Latin America. It was intended to continue a second year in Mexico City but someone in the Philip Morris office in New York thought they could do a better job of signing up the players than Santana and myself and, too late, discovered it wasn’t that easy.
That is one of the things that has been most impressive about the Laver Cup so far. Only Juan Martin del Potro, citing fatigue after his US Open exploits, has failed to answer the call. The players are genuine when they say they want the competition to pay proper homage to Rod Laver whom Federer has always cited as his idol.
I asked the Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov when he had realized that the name on the stadium at Melbourne Park was one of the game’s great champions. “Yes, I got to learn that pretty early on,” he said. “Then I looked at the clips of him playing and actually got to meet him here. I like playing in a competition that feels like a part of history.”
The chances are that Shapovalov and a few more of the game’s rising stars will be making history themselves in the years ahead and it is undeniable that the chance for these youngsters to mingle in the locker room and observe how multiple Grand Slam champions go about their business will hasten their development in the best possible way.
The advent of the Laver Cup should be seen as a warning shot across the bows of the ITF who have been told in no uncertain terms by members of the ATP Players Council that a scheduling revision is required to make the Davis Cup more understandable to the public and more convenient for the players. Until now, action has been dwarfed by talk.
The ATP are not happy because the Laver Cup has cut across two of its tournaments and, in any case, have their own ideas about a team competition. Currently, a World Team Cup format has received three firm offers for sponsorship and could be played at the start of the season in Australia.
Craig Tiley, CEO of Tennis Australia, is extremely open minded about new ideas and it is his organization, working in tandem with Federer’s agent Tony Godsick and Brazilian billionaire Jorge Paulo Lemon, who is contributing a great deal financially, which has virtually adopted the role of tournament organizers.
The following few days will reveal much. If the matches are competitive and exciting, the Laver Cup could be embarking on a long life on the tennis calendar.