Publish date:

Mailbag: Three Issues the Laver Cup Needs to Address

While the event is a great asset to the sport, the 2021 edition revealed some of its fundamental challenges.

Wednesday is Mailbag day, so let’s get to it, starting with Laver Cup.

I think I'm preaching to the choir and beating a dead horse with this but...have you heard about the prospects/likelihood of adding women to the Laver Cup? I really like the event, but I think it may be at an inflection point where inviting the top women would be a great addition. Thinking about the singles possibilities is great, but adding them into a mixed doubles format would be even better: Osaka/Barty/Andreescu + FAA/Kyrgios (future uncertain); Sabalenka/Azarenka + Medvedev/Rublev/Federer/Nadal; Monfils + Svitolina (how fun would it be to see a husband-wife team pair up?). Since you are THE Jon Wertheim, how will you make this happen?
Duane Wright, D.C.

• Let’s start with Laver Cup. And let’s start by acknowledging this event as a force of overall good. It’s an event that braids together tennis’ past, present and future. It toasts Rod Laver and Borg/McEnroe and, of course, Federer. ­Most of the outside-the-box trappings—starting with the court itself—work well. It’s TV-friendly. It comes at an ideal spot in the schedule. It tacks among cities, whereas most events are docked in the same harbor. The players who participate genuinely like it. (And, yes, are paid handsomely for the opportunity to like it.) The fans—often under-served by tennis—like it. Lot of assets here; lot of strong raw material.

But there are some inevitable growing pains, some areas to improve. And with none of the Big Three in attendance this year, they were laid bare. Ask fans and, in this world of you-suck/you-rock binaries, Laver Cup is either flawless or worthless. Neither, of course, is the case. But as I see it, Laver Cup has three fundamental issues/challenges.

laver-cup-2021-lead-image

1. The teams divisions. The Ryder Cup—which, of course, also played out this weekend, albeit with a much different result—pits Americans against Europeans. In golf, this is a real distinction. The overwhelming number of PGA events are held in the U.S. Foreign players feel…foreign. Accents and time differences and displacement and tax consequences. The American players, meanwhile, go months without unfurling their passports.

Tennis, by contrast, traipses around the world as a traveling circus. Fans were caught up debating whether Russia is really Europe or should be considered Asia; and whether Rublev and Medvedev were on the right team. But that misses the point. Countries and regions are not relevant. Felix Auger Aliassime resides in Monte Carlo, just as Matteo Berrettini spent the pandemic in Florida. The whole concept is predicated on internationalism: Roger Federer has fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Suddenly, we should care about countries of origin?

These divisions are arbitrary. But they are also imbalanced. In men’s tennis, Europeans have won 66 of the last 67 men’s majors. (Del Potro, 2009 U.S. Open for those curious.) Not surprisingly the European team is 4-0, coming off a 14-1 breadstick last weekend. It’s like splitting up teams: everyone with curved arches goes there; everyone with a flat arch goes the other way. A) No one cares about anyone’s feet. B) That said, the sides aren’t evenly matched. One solution: just appoint two captains to draft teams, as the NBA did with its All-Star game—once it realized fans don’t care about geographic divisions.

2. Exo-versus tour event is not an either/or. The Laver Cup contorts itself to stress that this is not an exhibition. It is earnest and honest competition. Great. But that only goes so far. When captains select players—and determine when they can play….when Nick Kyrgios (nearly outside the top 100)….when players negotiate fees….it’s not a tour event. This is fatal. The Ryder Cup isn’t a tour event either. But the Laver Cup has this weird alliance with the ATP. It offers no ranking points and no prize money. And this distorts history. (Not one right-minded tennis fan thinks John Isner has ever beat Rafa Nadal.) At the same time, it has the Grand Slam federations as investors. In part because of these uneasy alliances, I’m not sure fans have a clear idea how to perceive the competition.

3. If the management consultants came in and listed tennis’ virtues, they might start with its global appeal and international market penetration. Next, though, would be its mix of genders. The PGA and LPGA barely intersect. (Which is why no one clamors for the mix-gendered Ryder Cup.) But tennis happily—and, critically, more profitably—offers men and women, at the same events, placing interchangeably. Especially two weeks after a major, when this mixedness is on vivid display, it is, at best, uneasy to celebrate tennis and its history and its lineage and…only include one gender. (Let’s save longer discussion for another time, but, yes, it only intensifies the uneasiness when one of the participants—as acknowledged by other players in the field—is facing domestic allegation.)

This is such an easy fix, it scarcely needs mention. Add women. Let Chrissy and Martina captain women’s teams. Add mixed doubles. Let the men and women cheer each other and give pep talks. It would spackle this obvious hole. It would help with competitive balance, provided we stick with the current Europe/Team World breakdown. It would insulate the event from malaise when the Big Three retire. It would open new sites and markets. It would Federer so much additional good will. It would give a fuller picture of why tennis is so worth celebrating.

Federer likes to start sentences with the authoritative, level-setter “look,” so we’ll do the same. Look, all of this is healthy. Look, no start-up nails it with their business plan. Look, there are always challenges and unforeseen forces. Look, even the most successful enterprises have to make changes. To borrow a phrase, champions adjust. That applies to events as well.

1. Can we make a push that future Laver Cups don’t take place on the same weekend as the Ryder Cup? I am a big advocate for tennis and the Laver Cup, but many people feel the Ryder Cup is definitely one of the biggest sporting events of the year and I hate to detract from either event with having them played on the same weekend.

2. Can we start having new team captains for the Laver Cup like the Ryder Cup does? Nothing against McEnroe or Borg, but we have plenty of legends that can step in and captain for three-year stints. Would love to see Agassi/Becker or Courier/Edberg or Cash/Lendl.
Anthony, Brookline, Mass.

• 1) This was a scheduling quirk, after 2020 Covid cancelations and rescheduling. But, yes, seeing the Ryder co-exist with Laver Cup was, at a minimum, a distraction.

2) I suspect Borg is reading this and thinking, “What? I should have more job security than any coach in the world! I’m undefeated and coming off a 14-1 drubbing. If my job is imperiled you might as well fire Bruce Arians and Mike Budenholzer and Andrew Richardson and….oh, wait.” Seriously, I hear you. But part of the appeal of the Laver Cup is the braiding of eras, the celebration of tennis lineage starting with the name. If you wanted to keep McEnroe (now 0-4) and Borg but add a faction for other greats, I’m all for that.

The Laver Cup is no Ryder Cup, and never more apparent than when the two go head-to-head.
Helen of DC

• The Ryder Cup is going to celebrate its 100th anniversary later this decade. That’s a considerable head start of tradition and accumulated history. Again, to me the big point: in golf, Europe versus the U.S. is a real distinction felt by players—and by extension, fans—throughout the year. In tennis, it’s arbitrary. It’s a global tour. The players carom from country to country. They are citizens of the world. It’s a contrived division. You may as well divide the teams into “first half of the alphabet” and “N-Z.”

I live just outside of Boston, so I thought I'd try and catch some Laver Cup. I went to see how much tickets would set me back, and I thought I had accidentally clicked on "Show me Roger Federer's career earnings." Speaking of Boston, even the Big Dig thinks the Laver Cup is overpriced. At least someone in Boston will be sitting on a pile of money bigger than the Harvard endowment. I assume that's why Nadal won't be there this year—he can't afford a ticket? I could send my kids to Stanford for three semesters for the same price. This has to be the most ostentatious display of wealth I've ever seen in a sporting event—and keep in mind I've been to the Harvard-Yale football game. Apparently if you buy a ticket, the giveaway is a Sultan of Brunei bobblehead. It's so expensive that Jeff Bezos tried to fly it into space. The Laver Cup is so rich, I heard AOC is designing a new dress about it. It's so rich that Bono just asked it to cure world hunger. I even saw that Trump looked at the Laver Cup and said, "Well THAT'S a vulgar display of wealth." It's so bad that I overheard a cashier at the concession stand ask, "Is it okay if I give you your change in conflict diamonds?" I see how they have an official ball provider, an official timekeeper, and an official fur coat storage provider. The Laver Cup is such a grotesque orgy of capitalism that David Foster Wallace just apologized to the U.S. Open. Is it true that the Laver Cup is hosting the next G8 summit?
P.

• P will be here all week. ( And the David Foster Wallace/ U.S. Open commerce reference gives us an excuse to plug this.) A lot of you complained here about the ticket prices. I get the visceral reaction but this brings out the capitalist in me. Why is this different from tickets to “Hamilton” or The Rock movie quote or the price of space travel? The market sets the price. Supply meets demand. If the event can charge $x for a ticket and fill the stands, that’s the value. No matter how sadly exorbitant that might seem to others.

Djokovic 2011 vs. Djokovic 2015 vs. Djokovic 2021
How would you rank them? A / B / C is a perfectly acceptable answer.
Deepak, New York

SI Recommends

• The answer would, of course, be to go off the board and pick the second half of 2015 and first half of 2016. (For more on this, see the reader riff below.) Recency effect would militate the near-Grand Slam of 2021. But I think you have to go 2015. He not only won three majors but won six matches at the French. He won 11 (!) titles and 82 matches. (He went 70-6 with 10 titles in 2011….this year he was “only” 44-6 with four titles.) You could also point out that in 2015 the quality of opponent was highest, beating, as he did, Nadal in Paris and Federer at Wimbledon (and the U.S. Open.)

During the U.S. Open, I noticed a PSA for COVID-19 vaccines from Venus Williams. I was impressed at her clarity and willingness to speak on this issue. After reading the Rolling Stone piece about the NBA’s reluctance to ask its vaxxed stars to do PSAs to convince holdouts, I’m even more impressed by Venus. She took a stand when she didn’t have to. It looks like she did this with NYC Health rather than the WTA. Have the tours considered asking their vaxxed stars to do the same? Are the players who are public about getting vaccines doing so on their own?
EB, Brooklyn

• Here’s Venus.

This is another example of the limits of the tours’ power. The players belong to a tour but are independent contractors. It’s hard to see how any governing body in tennis has the authority to demand vaccination. The ATP and WTA could be putting more effort (and political capital) into this by making life difficult for unvaccinated players—the U.S. Open did this, setting up two sets of protocol and consequences: one for players who were vaccinated and another for unvaccinated. Again, this is a terrible look for tennis. You have events demanding fans show vaccination cards. You have tours demanding that employees that travel are vaccinated….all to watch and service players who face no such demands.

Players who are traveling the world, crossing borders, getting on and off planes, playing indoors this season, hugging opponents at the net. Planned media victory lap tours have had to be considered because the celebrated players wouldn’t have been permitted into studios and public buildings without proof of vaccination. Stay tuned and watch what happens in Australia. (Sidebar on this cool tangentially related story.) Melbourne is the site of the world’s longest lockdown. The notion that a tennis event would be held—featuring a huge cohort of unvaccinated players—is beyond comprehension. If the Australian Open 2022 is to occur at all, it’s hard to see how unvaccinated players are allowed into the country. We’ll see which players show up, which of the holdouts reconsider their stance, where the rubberized court meets the road.

Don't want to make too much of this, but it is a remarkably strange incident on many levels: it is unusual if not unprecedented for the No. 1 seed in a pro tournament to be defaulted in the first round after less than two games! And not helped by Sandgren's cavalier follow-up tweet.

Tennys Sandgren defaulted from tournament after umpire incident

Leif Wellington Haase

• Duly noted.

• Take us out Vivek of Bangalore: Much has been made of Djokovic’s ultimately unsuccessful bid at the Calendar Year Grand Slam. But what about Djokovic’s successful Year Grand Slam (to make up a term)? I’m speaking, obviously, of Djokovic holding all Grand Slams simultaneously, from the 2015 Wimbledon to the 2016 French Open. Why isn’t this as big a deal as it should be? Is it one of those things that are not considered “great” because the world doesn’t consider it great? Another similar thing that kinda irks me is the importance given to the year-end World No.1 Ranking: Why is this considered so important? Just look at plain number of weeks at No. 1 and be done with it!

Coming back to Djokovic: I’m actually surprised that there is still a debate about the GOAT race. If the world were to stop today, Djokovic would be the clear winner. You want a reason? I will give you a list of reasons (And I’m saying this as a not-necessarily-a-Djokovic-fan):

· H2H vs Federer and Nadal,

· At least two championships at each Slam

· Only male “Year Grand Slam” winner (refer above) in (my) living memory

· Came within a win of the Calendar Year Grand Slam

· Bonus: Master wins, Year-end No. 1 rankings, etc.

A bit on the "At least two championships at each Slam" thing: Looking back, Federer must feel really, really grateful to Soderling. If history had turned slightly differently, Soderling wouldn't have beaten Nadal in the 2009 French, Nadal would have met Federer in the final and obviously there's no way Federer would have beaten Nadal at Roland Garros, so instead of battling for GOAT status, Federer would be demoted to the GOAT-without-a-Career-Slam relegation tier. A similar what-if can be weaved about Nadal's Career-Slam, ie., the Australian Open 2009 final. I wonder if both Federer and Nadal didn't do a three-way deal with the devil in 2008: Federer agrees to lose two Slam finals to Nadal in heart-breaking fashion (2008 Wimbledon, 2009 Australian Open), in return for Nadal losing at Roland Garros 2009.

If you want to make a movie about this, I can be cajoled into writing the screen-play :)

More Tennis Coverage:

Mailbag: Where Does Emma Raducanu Go From Here?
Mailbag: Medvedev's Celebration and More 2021 U.S. Open Takeaways
50 Parting Thoughts From the 2021 U.S. Open