Europe vs USA – the best of all the manufactured sporting rivalries. A format frequently used to usher in the biggest names on to the biggest stages has unfortunately and relatively unsuccessfully become a long weekend that tennis fans are learning to endure. The Laver Cup, steadfast in its commitment to showcasing a kind of ‘global tennis’ and having taken inspiration from golf’s popular Ryder/Solheim Cup, lavishly set out their stall again last week.
The fundamental problem however is the Laver Cup has reached a crossroads and cannot decide which path to pursue. Should it commit to being ultra competitive, or must it take a more relaxed approach?
Rod Laver presents Team World with mini Laver Cup trophies
The exhibition style event sees two teams of six play together in a combination of singles and doubles over three days aiming to pick up points, earned by winning their respective matches. The first team to reach 13 out of a possible 24 points earns the bragging rights for the following year.
On account of the Laver Cup’s more global ambitions, Team Europe not only faced the challenge of America alone, but Team World; a name that’s surely contradictory. This year, the ambitiously titled Team World ended up being exclusively made up of North Americans bar Argentina’s talented Francisco Cerúndolo, who made his debut at the event. Team Europe floundered, allowing their rivals to clinch their second title on Sunday and put an end to an underwhelming weekend.
Now, I would never dare accuse Roger Federer, the finest piece of Swiss craftsmanship since Toblerone, and most importantly the co-creator of the Laver Cup, of indulging in some sort of vanity project. Nor will I cynically ask him to appear in front of the middle-aged court charged with the crime of ‘a bit of harmless fun’, mostly because nobody is quite sure that is his aim. Federer’s on-court interview with Jim Courier allowed him to show off his chiselled retirement glow, and additionally attempt to convince us that the future of tennis was in safe hands. He tried to prove this by firstly referring to three top 10 male players who are not actually playing in the event (Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, and Holger Rune), and later mentioning Coco Gauff, whose gender prohibits her from playing this event.
Perhaps the Laver Cup could embrace cricket’s newest revamp ‘The Hundred’, in which both female and male teams compete, with the matches televised and showcased on an equal footing. Including female players makes nothing but sense. It would help diversify the teams, improve its quality, and ultimately provide fans with more entertainment value. The Hundred has helped platform women’s cricket, and broadened its audience by indulging in a more relaxed, fun format.
Team Europe Captain Luke Donald lifts the Ryder Cup trophy
Welcome the Ryder Cup – Golf’s biennial competition that offered up a prestigious, high-quality event last weekend and laid bare the shortcomings of its less appealing relative. A atmospheric Rome saw caddie controversy, world class shots, and touching team spirit as Team Europe created a thrilling advertisement for Golf. A competitive Solheim Cup that featured an impressive European comeback, and an exhilarating Ryder Cup effectively bookended the drab excuse for an exhibition that was the Laver Cup and drew highlighted attention to its many limitations and pitfalls.
The Laver Cup is designed by men, played by men, and watched by not as many people as they would have hoped. It is, for all intents and purposes, a way to ask the B-string of the men’s tour (ATP) to knock-up for a few days, and gawp at Ben Shelton while he celebrates with a pretend telephone that Novak Djokovic theatrically stole from him at the US Open a fortnight ago.
Ben Shelton enjoys a victory by performing his ‘phone celebration’
The tournament being unsure of what it wants to be was perfectly demonstrated when French veteran, Gael Monfils, and Canadian talent Félix Auger-Aliassime engaged in an on-court spat. A riled up Monfils said he was playing for fun, after Auger-Aliassime who, taking a more serious approach, accused the Frenchman of not sticking to the ATP rules by taking too long between points. He said to teammate Ben Shelton after Monfils’ outburst, “What have the people that brought him here told him?”
The event is designed to attract the top talent and has previously succeeded. This year however it was enjoyed (mostly) by players that casual fans are unfamiliar with, yet it was still marketed as an exclusive event showcasing the major players. While the event admits its focus is not totally on securing those with the highest ATP rankings, rather it is run on an invitational basis, the 12 starters this year are made up of just 3 top 10 players, the lowest in the Laver Cup’s history.
Additionally, no grand slam winners featured this year either, which was disappointing and probably not part of the script. Its spot in the tennis calendar is partially responsible for the lack of top players. The Laver Cup comes a week after the US Open; the climax of an arduous American hardcourt season. Players do not necessarily want to play a meaningless event and would rather take a deserved break and later, focus back on the main tour.
Since its inception in 2017, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg have solidified their positions as Laver Cup team captains, a role in which the responsibilities appear to be limited to routinely performing excited high-fives. Borg even suggested to Federer that he could one day take the reins himself and secure the elusive role of captain, an honour nobody sensible could ever pass up.
It was of course at the Laver Cup last year that a bleary-eyed Federer played his final match, partnering Nadal in a doubles defeat to Frances Tiafoe, returning this year as part of Team World, and Jack Sock who has since retired and turned his hand to pickleball. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Andy Murray all appeared together last year (2022) and took part in a wholesome doubles match to see their rival and friend off in style. Perhaps it would have been fitting and appropriate to tie things up there, and let the event end on a high, rather than watch it agonisingly peter out.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in tears after Federer’s final match – Laver Cup 2022
The extortionate prize money and attendance fees that players receive at the Laver Cup is unseemly, especially since the matches are deliberately shortened, with a 10-point tiebreak replacing a deciding set. The 2023 winner of the Rothesay Open held in Nottingham, a women’s (WTA) 250 event, received $34,228. Of course, this amount of money is significant, however it is worth remembering that players often need to play several rounds of qualifying matches to even make the first round, where a defeat means you walk away with $2,804.
The Laver Cup is an ATP sanctioned but completely uncompetitive event, and yet boasts more combined prize money ($2.25 million) than the majority of WTA and ATP 500 tournaments, the third largest category tournament on the tour. Since the $250,000 paycheck on top of a hefty participation fee for each member of the winning team did not convince more to join a tournament that has no bearing on their ranking, we must ask ourselves why it has no real allure for top players.
Outrageously priced tickets for a mediocre display is a further example of the Laver Cup’s deafness. Fans were paying up to $825 for the best seats in the house and unsurprisingly not all were filled. With fewer players this year who represent the flair and dynamism the ATP has to offer, such as Australia’s controversial Nick Kygrios, or the popular young Spaniard and former world number one, Carlos Alcaraz, the Laver Cup is demanding too high a price to watch a second-rate ensemble take to the court.
A further depleted field that will return next year will inevitably leave sponsors with a tough, but somewhat predictable decision and the money that has kept the event afloat so far will start to vanish and cause the demise of the Laver Cup.
The two teams have tried their best to make the tournament look interesting but truly have not convinced many. After a weekend of larking about like rival pop groups that Simon Cowell randomly put together after an underwhelming bootcamp performance, in order to remedy the gaping hole in Louis Walsh’s sacred boyband category, it is plain to see that the Laver Cup, in similar spirit to X-Factor, is dwindling in its public appeal.
This year, it tried to be two things, and failed twice. It could not showcase the best tennis players the ATP has to offer, and it was lacking in both fun and watchability. If the Laver Cup does not make some considered alterations and cannot commit one way or the other, it certainly feels like a doomed venture.