On the eve of the Laver Cup, Rafael Nadal launched an impassioned defence of the tournament’s credentials.
“We are here to try our best, I wake up today at 6am in the morning to practice. I don’t practice for an exhibition match. We are here to try our best and try to win,” he said on Thursday. “We want to play with passion and to play for our continent.”
Despite Nadal’s defiance, there was still plenty of scepticism, and understandably so. Attempts to branch out from the professional tour, most recently with the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL), have failed to resonate with fans, while tennis’ traditional team events – the Davis Cup and Fed Cup – are struggling to stay relevant.
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Why would the Laver Cup fare any better? The premise is an enticing one; two teams of six players representing Europe and the rest of the world do battle over three days in singles and doubles. The scoring system – one point per win on Day 1, two points on Day 2 and three points on Day 3 – is designed to help the tournament is contested until the end.
From the scoring system and team setup to the captain’s picks and alternating host cities, the similarities to golf’s Ryder Cup are clear. Neither tournament offers prize money nor ranking points. The teams even wear red and blue.
But the most important aspect of the Ryder Cup – and what the Laver Cup must encapsulate if it is to endure – is the emotion. The Ryder Cup is so special because golfers and fans alike have a deep, emotional connection with the tournament. It is played out in a blend of passion, intense competitiveness, joviality and bravado that allows two players to go at each other hammer and tongs yet still applaud the other's moments of brilliance.
The team environment of the Ryder Cup, being part of the collective, is an idea cherished by players who for the other 103 weeks between tournaments are focused solely on their own objectives.
Based on the inaugural tournament in the Czech Republic that concluded on Sunday, the passion and team spirit are certainly not lacking from the players, and the crowds at Prague's O2 Arena were as raucous as you will find.
The sight of Roger Federer – the epitome of calm – letting out a lion’s roar after levelling his decisive final match against Nick Kyrgios showed what winning this tournament meant to the players, as did the pain etched on Kyrgios’s face after succumbing to Federer. Equally, Team Europe's mobbing of Federer and Team World's consoling of Kyrgios highlighted the unity on both sides of the net.
If players continue to be emotionally invested in the Laver Cup so will the fans, and once there is an emotional connection, the foundations have been laid for a sustainable tournament.
There were concerns that a Team Europe comprising the top five-ranked available players in the world – including the No 1 and 2 in Nadal and Federer – could turn the Laver Cup into a procession. But the fact Team World were within two points of forcing a tie-break match decider is proof of how competitive the Laver Cup was.
Team Europe is likely to be even stronger when the Laver Cup heads to Chicago next year, with multi-grand slam champions Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka all missing this edition through injury. Team World’s notable absentees included Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori.
However, a glimpse into the future as the next generation of tennis stars begin to emerge suggests a more even playing field when, or if, the Laver Cup evolves into a permanent fixture on the tennis calendar. Indeed, the Ryder Cup is often an unevenly-matched contest, with the United States and Europe each enjoying eras of dominance, yet it still does not detract from the lustre of the event.
There are areas the Laver Cup could improve, most pertinently with the inclusion of women. Getting the best players from the WTA involved would attract even more attention and competitiveness. A team tournament that features all of the world’s best players, male and female, has the potential to make a major statement on the global sports stage.
The inaugural Laver Cup has been pleasantly surprising. The desire displayed by the players, the passion of the crowd and, yes, the chance to see Nadal and Federer play doubles together, suggests that the team event in tennis may have found a new, sustainable format.
Roll on Chicago 2018.