As Rafael Nadal leapt into Roger Federer’s arms at the conclusion of the inaugural Laver Cup on Sunday night, you could almost hear the clinking of champagne glasses by the tournament’s organisers.
Nadal and Federer embracing after the Swiss had thrillingly defeated Nick Kyrgios to secure the Laver Cup for Team Europe became the defining image of a weekend full of memorable moments that gripped the tennis world.
Let’s just hope that it was being watched by the beleaguered International Tennis Federation (ITF), whose Davis Cup competition increasingly feels like an analogue event in a digital age.
The Laver Cup – which pitted Team Europe against Team World in a tennis version of the Ryder Cup – cannot match the Davis Cup’s 117-year history or the honour of representing one’s country, but its experimentation gave an insight into what excites tennis fans and, just as importantly, players.
First of all, having stellar names sells. Tennis’s ‘Big Four’ have largely skipped the Davis Cup over the last decade, with matches involving two of Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray becoming as rare as a moment of Maria Sharapova humility. Only twice in the competition’s history have two of the four met in the Davis Cup – most recently in 2009, with its unforgiving schedule turning off the majority of tennis’s superstars.
At the Laver Cup by contrast, the O2 Arena in Prague was packed as fans flocked to see Federer, Nadal and get a glimpse of team captains John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, as well as the legendary Rod Laver.
The competition’s rules also made for plenty of moments that were shared across the world by the tennis community – McEnroe exhorting Jack Sock during his match against Nadal to “finish this son of a b**** off”, Federer receiving pearls of wisdom mid-match from Nadal, Team World indulging in choreographed dance routines on the sidelines.
Some were fascinating, some were trivial, but whether one likes it or not they played into the thirst modern day sports fans have for entertaining moments they can quickly digest.
The players for their part seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves as well – “the most epic thing I’ve been thru (sic)” according to Nick Kyrgios – helped by the shorter format of the game (a deciding tie-break rather than a third set). The Davis Cup of course trudges on with best of five set matches, after the ITF’s proposal to make singles matches best of three were voted down in August.
The Davis Cup though must take succour from the clear appetite there is for international tennis competition. If an event based on nebulous geographical regions can generate the interest the Laver Cup did, then imagine the potential for a competition that has the advantage of history and genuine patriotism.
But for the Davis Cup to survive, the ITF must ask themselves: What do the fans want? What do the players want? It may not be specifically the Laver Cup, but as dwindling attendances and TV rights packages show, it sure as heck ain’t the Davis Cup in its current format.