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Saturday, September 22, 2018

My Laver Cup

by Jonathan Kelley

Laver Cup 2018, from the back row
(c) Jonathan Kelley
My heart was racing and so, it seemed, was the heart of the woman standing next to me. Here we were, two Chicagoans, strangers to each other, pacing a bit in the walkway behind the most upper rafters of the United Center as John Isner had match point against Alexander Zverev in the fifth match in the second iteration of Laver Cup. Convert this and Team Word would tie the score at 3-3 in this three-day star-studded event. Isner hit a decent return, and Zverev’s second shot was deep into the court. Maybe too deep? From our vantage point behind Isner, it felt long. “That shot was out, honey!” my new tennis friend exclaimed, but what could be done? The umpire wasn’t about to overrule in the middle of the point, and Isner would have been foolish to stop play on match point like that.

A couple of hours later, at a crowded watering hole near the festivities, in between the Day 2 day session and the night session, Great Shot Podcast co-host Alex Gruskin and I sat and watched the replay. The ball was pretty clearly in. In the Tennis Channel’s replayed version of the match, just like in the live version we watched, Isner ill-advisedly approached the net to Zverev’s backhand, only to get passed. On the next point, just like how we experienced it live, Isner then duffed a volley into the net that would have given him a second match point, this one on his serve. And on the subsequent point, we relived another backhand pass from Zverev to give him the second set, and set him up for a win in the match tiebreak (final score 3-6 7-6(6) [10-7]) and a 5-1 Team Europe lead.

It’s a surreal thing to sit in a bar in the same city in which you’ve lived for 20 years that hasn't had top-tier professional tennis in that time, watching a tennis match that took place a couple of hours prior (a few blocks away), a match that you also watched in real time and in person, chatting in person about the match with a guy with whom you’ve talked a lot over the past year, but had never met in person until right after said match took place, having watched it in different corners of an arena that’s never hosted top-tier tennis before.

The night before, I was sitting in that same bar, watching live tennis featuring two surefire Hall of Famers facing “the best doubles player on the planet” alongside an alumnus of the same institution at which I’m currently a (much older) student, waiting to be joined by five other people, from five different states, who came to my town to watch this phenomenon and bask in the reflected glow of these exceptional sportsmen. It felt weird not to be closer to the action – especially given that when it was announced that Laver Cup would be coming next to Chicago, I was sure I’d be there for every moment. But Day 2’s day session would be my only one. It’s expensive. And I’m a grad student. And my blog is on (permanent?) hiatus, so a press pass wasn’t in the cards.

Also too, I’m kind of more of a challenger guy, when it comes down to it. I prefer to be five feet from the action than in the walkway behind the nosebleeds. At the grand slams, I prefer to watch the final round of qualies to a final.

But I feel connected to this event. It’s exciting. It’s more than an “exhibition,” even if it’s less than a major. [The whole "exhibition" debate is problematic, as if there aren’t endless enjoyable tennis events that are meaningful to players and fans that aren’t Boodles-type "hit and giggles" but at the same time don’t have the status in official tour-level tennisdom (awarding ranking point and all that jazz). World Team Tennis, German club tennis, Hopman Cup, the belated Grand Slam Cup, incipient Majesty Cup, junior tennis back draws, money tournaments. The Laver Cup has buy-in from great players, has been delightful for fans, and when Zverev dropped to his knees after beating Isner … come on, that was a moment.]

And it is in my city. The city whose WTA tournament folded up shop in 1997 and whose ATP tournament stopped in 1991; the city that “hosted” a Davis Cup tie that was actually an hour-plus journey into the suburbs. The city that is host to a new Oracle Challenger Series event that I covered for Tennis Panorama. The third largest city in America but one whose tennis legacy is far outpaced by its much smaller Midwestern sibling, Cincinnati. A city that often gets a bad rep.

Back in March, I was able to cover the initial press event announcing Laver Cup for Tennis Panorama. I went to “the Bean” and witnessed Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios clumsily hit around on a mini court, then went across the street and asked the first question at the press conference, something about whether the era of European dominance in men’s tennis was waning (note: the next tournament, Miami, was won by John Isner, but European players have won all 13 ATP 500, ATP 1000, and Grand Slam events since then; represent both Davis Cup finalists, and are dominating Laver Cup through 3.5 sessions, so there’s no real waning in sight). And then I was part of the scrums that interviewed Federer and Laver and McEnroe and Kyrgios up close. Suffice it to say I was a bit starstruck.

So student life be damned, I decided after the hangout last night that I would have at least one session in person – the day session. Even after it was announced that session would include the most popular player in decades if not ever, I was determined to pay the Federer Fee and see him live, from however far away.

It turned out to be $150 (plus StubHub fees, plus pretzel (plus cheese sauce)) for the two-match session. And the Federer match itself was underwhelming – he simply dismantled Kyrgios, never facing a break point and withstanding the few HOT SHOTS the Aussie was able to muster. The 37-year-old looked like the future of tennis, the way he thought out there, the way he moved, the way he defended and offended and just shone. But the match itself was basically a snoozer, a 6-3 6-2 dusting.

But it was still worth it, to be there (and be able to say I was there) and to feel the thrall of Isner/Zverev, where the result was always in doubt, and two strokes made the difference (a Zverev double fault to get broken early in the first and that Isner dump into the net at 6-6 in the second set tiebreak). The ten point tiebreak proved to be a bit of a letdown, especially after Isner went down 0-4. I wonder if a first-to-four set might not work better for the third set of singles? Something of a hybrid of Laver Cup and the Milan #NextGen format? A way to maintain some brevity without the crap shoot feel of a match tiebreak. Just a thought.

The Laver Cup is great. It’s not perfect, but it’s fun, and it’s meaningful for the players, and it’s great to be able to promote it for an entire year. Sure, the Europe/World division is artificial to everyone but me (who obsesses over such geographic vagaries) and it’s too new to have any kind of tradition, and it’s a little too Federer-centric for comfort (I say as a FedFan who found FedFandom only after he drubbed all of my favorites into submission) and the sides are mismatched. But there are other men’s tennis stars out there, and more on the horizon. And the team element is a wild card. And had Isner and Diego Schwartzman (Session 2, Match 1) converted their match points, the scoreboard looks much different.

Whether Laver Cup should include women – or whether women can and should find their own version of a team event – is very much an open question. But I’d implore the cynics to appreciate the special part of it, and note that it doesn’t seem to have harmed other tennis products. And hey, any time you can have Jack Sock on a court where he beats Roger Federer is a momentous occasion.