At the Laver Cup, Europe Might Be Too Good

BOSTON — After three down-to-the-wire editions, the Laver Cup finally came up short of drama.

It happens, and considering European players’ long-running dominance of men’s tennis, it is frankly more surprising that the first three Laver Cups were suspense magnets than that this year’s edition was a disappointing blowout.

Even without the stars who make up the Big Three in men’s tennis — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — Team Europe had nothing but top 10 players in its six-man squad in Boston. Its opponent, Team World, did not have any, and it showed in the final score, 14-1, which was by far the most lopsided in the event’s brief history.

Despite all the careful planning and big investment in this team competition, the bottom line is that Team Europe and Bjorn Borg, its captain, have won every Laver Cup. They have an excellent chance of remaining undefeated in London next year and beyond considering the youth and talent of rising stars like the 2021 U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev, his Russian countryman Andrey Rublev, Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece and Alexander Zverev of Germany.

That competitive imbalance is potentially a big problem for the Laver Cup, the international team event created by Federer and his management company Team8 in 2017.

“I think a Team World win would be good for everyone,” said John McEnroe, Team World’s captain. “I think the event needs it. I was wondering why Russia was part of Europe. I don’t think it is, but that’s just me.”

One cannot blame McEnroe for thinking creatively, even desperately, at this stage. Unfortunately for McEnroe, much of Russia is indeed in continental Europe, and the country traditionally takes part in European sporting competitions. Even if eastern Russia is in Asia, Medvedev and the Russians will remain part of Team Europe, according to Tony Godsick, the Laver Cup’s chief executive.

“We won’t make the change,” Godsick said Sunday night. “We’re not going to adjust this thing. It will be cyclical. I promise you, the world team will win at some point.”

The Laver Cup, with its three-day format and blue and red color scheme for team uniforms, was modeled after golf’s venerable and successful Ryder Cup, and certainly took the modeling too far this time by being played in the same country on the same weekend.

That was not to the upstart tennis competition’s benefit, even though the crowds and the atmosphere were terrific in Boston. A search of “Cup” on Google news on Sunday night produced a top-10 that was all Ryder Cup results from Whistling Straits.

Godsick said the scheduling overlap was not intentional. Both events were postponed in 2020, and he said that the Laver Cup has a designated week on the tennis schedule that could not be changed.

The Ryder Cup, which was first contested in 1927 in Worcester, Mass., had to evolve to become a major event and commercial juggernaut. Originally a competition between the United States and Britain, it only became a runaway success after players from other European nations joined the British team in 1979.

But if the Russians are remaining part of Team Europe in the Laver Cup, not much other tinkering can be done in the geography department. Team World already is open to every non-European nation and had players this year from Argentina (Diego Schwartzman), Australia (Nick Kyrgios), Canada (Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime) and the United States (Reilly Opelka and John Isner).

For now, McEnroe is 0-4 as its captain, and his Laver Cup rivalry with his old friend Borg has not been nearly as balanced as their rivalry when they were playing classic Grand Slam finals in the 1980s.

“I normally do like you,” the gray-haired McEnroe said to the gray-haired Borg on Sunday at the awards ceremony in the TD Garden. “I hate your guts right now.”

McEnroe was only half kidding. Arms folded in his courtside chair, he looked like a man experiencing indigestion for much of this long weekend.

Technically, the Laver Cup is an exhibition. It offers no ranking points even though it is a sanctioned ATP Tour event.

But the captains and the players have never treated it as an exhibition, and Team World’s failure to compete in Boston was certainly not linked to a failure to care. Their expressions were often anguished and their body language often tense as they lost critical point after critical point, usually in the match tiebreakers that substitute for third sets.

“It’s not an exhibition,” Opelka said. “If this was an exhibition, it would not have been 14-1. I can guarantee you that.”

Opelka, a towering and bearded player at 6-foot-11 who lost both his matches in his Laver Cup debut, confessed that he had been skeptical until he experienced the event himself this year.

“It looked too good to be true,” he said of the close finishes in 2017, 2018 and 2019. “And then I got here, and the way Johnny Mac started speaking about it changed everything. He’s a true legend. That was priceless being able to spend time with him.”

The Laver Cup’s capacity to bring together tennis’s past and present stars for meaningful exchanges is one of its strengths. So is its format, in which victories are worth one point on the first day, two points on the second and three points on the third. That was intended to prevent a meaningless final day. But while four matches were scheduled on Sunday, Europe clinched victory after only one, with Zverev and Rublev defeating Opelka and Shapovalov, 6-2, 6-7 (4), 10-3. It was yet another close match that went Europe’s way. It was also a potentially edgy one.

After Zverev lost in doubles on Friday night with Matteo Berrettini, McEnroe said that Zverev told him that would be the last match Team World was going to win. McEnroe later acknowledged that Zverev was teasing, but McEnroe said he was eager for “bulletin-board material.”

After McEnroe informed his team of the comment on Friday, the response was predictably bellicose and Opelka responded with: “He also said he’s innocent.” That was an apparent reference to published allegations of domestic violence from Zverev’s former girlfriend, Olya Sharypova.

Alexander Zverev was on court for the decisive point in the Laver Cup for the third straight iteration of the competition. Credit…Adam Glanzman/Getty Images For Laver Cup

Sharypova has not filed criminal charges against Zverev over the incidents, which she told the publication Slate occurred in 2019. Zverev has repeatedly denied abusing Sharypova and has continued to play on the ATP Tour, winning the Olympic gold medal in singles in Tokyo and reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open earlier this month before competing in the Laver Cup.

On Sunday night, Laver Cup organizers announced before Team World’s final news conference that the team would field only “tennis-related questions.” In a separate interview, Opelka later declined to speak about Zverev.

The ATP Tour announced earlier this year that it would review its approach to handling players who are accused of domestic abuse or sexual misconduct. It currently has no formal policy.

Zverev turned out to be correct, though, that the Friday’s doubles win would be Team World’s last victory in Boston. His victory on Sunday with the hard-hitting Rublev marked the third straight time that Zverev has won the decisive point in the Laver Cup.

He looked very much like Team Europe’s new leader in Boston on the court and in the post-match interviews. Though Federer made the trip to Boston, he did so only as a spectator and cheerleader, navigating the TD Garden on crutches after knee surgery in August.

At age 40, it is unclear when or if he will return to the tour, but what is clear is that this European team was still unstoppable without him or the other members of the Big Three: Nadal and Djokovic.

Carrying the Laver Cup forward without that superstar power will be a much bigger challenge.

“I’m definitely not worried about the event’s future,” Godsick said. “Tennis always produces new superstars. It always has, and it always will. There are new people holding up Grand Slam trophies. You see it coming now. If anything, I think we were lucky to be able to launch it in the era of such incredible tennis players.”

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