Judging by the way the inaugural Laver Cup panned out, Roger Federer is almost as good at organising events as he is at playing in them. The whole shebang came down to a highly charged showdown between Federer himself and Nick Kyrgios - and that is a combination anyone would pay to see.
The two most gifted shotmakers in the game fought out a two-hour classic which could live alongside anything we have seen this year. Kyrgios even discomfited his host by using some of his own cheekiest tactics against him, including the so-called SABR, in which you charge the net as your opponent’s serve is coming down.
But to upstage Federer at his own party would have represented a serious case of lese-majeste. Kyrgios came up just short, failing to take a match point at 9-8 in the deciding tie-break and finally going down by a 4-6, 7-6, 11-9 margin. The Laver Cup was thus claimed by Europe, who had collected 15 points to the World’s nine. (Had each match counted for one point, as might make more sense to the sporting purists, the score would have been 8-4.)
No-one knew what to expect from the Laver Cup at the start of this weekend, not even the players who had signed up for it. But the format has delivered in spades. The black court looked novel and stylish. The compressed matches amplified the tension. And the most unique element of the broadcast has been provided by the reaction shots, whether of the World team performing their choreographed celebration routines, or of Rafael Nadal throwing his head back in anguish every time a European misses a shot.
This is truly sport for the 21st Century: tennis crossed with Gogglebox.
— Tennis Channel (@TennisChannel) September 24, 2017
There is an element of contrivance in the scoring system, which ratchets up the value of matches over the course of the weekend as a way of preventing a premature result. (First-day wins are worth one point, second-day wins two points and so on.) Did the players also collude to produce a memorable finale? It’s possible, given that this is still an exhibition – if a uniquely high-quality one. But if they did so, they did it with great subtlety. The overall impression was of 12 gifted athletes trying their socks off. And the tears shed by Kyrgios, as he sat on the World bench after the last point, told their own story.
Even though he missed that final forehand, Kyrgios produced the most compelling matches of the weekend, delivering the sort of mercurial brilliance we too rarely see from him in regular tournaments. The tennis tour – especially grand-slam events that require the champion to play seven best-of-five-set matches in a fortnight - is set up to reward physicality and stamina as much as superior racketwork. Kyrgios is never the best conditioned athlete, and admits that he also struggles with motivation in early-round matches against lesser opponents. But this environment - which uses champions’ tie-breaks instead of third sets, and also brings a ready-made cheer squad to the side of the court – is perfect for him.
This Laver Cup was shunned by two of the sport’s biggest organisations - the International Tennis Federation and the Association of Tennis Professionals - which is hardly surprising. From the ATP’s perspective, it steals attention from their simultaneous events in Metz and St Petersburg. To the ITF, it is a threatening rival that treads – or even stamps - on the toes of their own Davis Cup.
Rafael Nadal coaching Roger Federer. How phenomenal is this? pic.twitter.com/GvEFFeoMmR
— Pedro Lavandoski (@plavandoski) September 24, 2017
The Davis Cup has 117 years of tradition in its favour, and the advantage of playing for your country, rather than nebulous continents or geographical regions. But it also suffers from a dysfunctional governing body, which has lost the confidence of the leading players. The Laver Cup is a less demanding commitment physically, and a better-presented product. Crucially, it can also inform everyone where the next instalment will be staged a whole year in advance. Next September, it will reconvene in Chicago.
For the moment, the Laver Cup’s greatest asset is the presence of Federer and Nadal, whose combined star power could turn a village fete into an international sensation. Its detractors will ask where this event will go once those twin legends have sheathed their rackets for the last time. Yet that much-feared moment will present an existential challenge for tennis at large. Perhaps some of the young talents who graced the stage in Prague – Alexander Zverev, Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe – will have grown famous enough by then to carry the sport on their shoulders, but no-one can say for sure.
At the end, Federer caught a jubilant Nadal as he jumped into his arms. He then turned to the microphones and switched straight into his new role as impresario. “Time will tell how big the Laver Cup will become,” he said. “I just hope to leave a legacy behind, not for me personally but for the game, because it deserves it. It deserves the players, and the legends of this game deserve the recognition they deserve. The future players deserve a massive platform to play tennis in.”
As for Nadal, his summation was simpler. “For me it was unforgettable weekend.”