Tennis' All-Star Game? Federer's Laver Cup can become so much more
LONDON (AP) — Roger Federer is, by his own admission, a jokester. A couple of his Laver Cup teammates would agree.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 2021 French Open runner-up, described the 20-time Grand Slam champion as "goofy and giggling" in the locker room during the three-day affair that finished Sunday and amounted to a celebration of Federer's career as he heads into retirement at age 41.
"Roger is the loudest and the funniest of all," said Casper Ruud, a finalist at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open this year. "He sort of has all these nicknames (for) all the players."
For whatever cachet and attention the Laver Cup might have lacked in the past — and no matter how long it lasts — the fifth edition, held at London’s O2 Arena, will forever be known as the occasion of Federer's final match, a doubles defeat alongside rival and confidant Rafael Nadal on Friday night.
Now it will be worth monitoring whether the loud crowds that turned out mainly to salute and catch a glimpse of Federer — with a racket in hand; offering coaching tips to teammates on the sideline; just walking out and waving during pre-match introductions for each session — will show up next year in Vancouver and beyond.
It'll be worth noting, too, whether top players will continue to participate, whether fans will care from afar and whether the event founded by Federer's management company might eventually become the type of phenomenon that other team-contests-in-individual-sports are, like golf's Ryder Cup.
But maybe that's not what it needs to be.
Rather than thinking of the Laver Cup as a "real" and meaningful collection of matches — it basically is a glorified exhibition, without ranking points available, although the wins and losses do count on a player's official record — it's OK to view the gathering as what it is and should strive to be: a kind of All-Star game for tennis, bringing together top athletes in a relaxed setting where the results do not matter as much as the mere presence of big names and the chance to witness their interactions and off-the-cuff banter.
"The concept of the Laver Cup is so unique that, regardless of whether Roger is retiring or not ... this competition will live (on) and create very beautiful memories," said Novak Djokovic, the 21-time major champion who was participating for the second time. "It creates better bonds and relationships between the teammates."
It could serve, above all, as a promotional vehicle, which would be rather valuable as tennis moves away from a spectacular era that featured Federer and Serena Williams, whose farewell at the U.S. Open preceded his last hurrah by three weeks. And who can be sure how much longer Nadal, 36, and Djokovic, 35, will stick around? (Asked about himself, Djokovic said: "I can't give you a number of years. I don't know.")
It's unusual, and fun, to watch and listen along on TV as folks such as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic offer coaching tips to others during matches.
"If Roger Federer is telling you to do something," said Cam Norrie, who filled in for Nadal in singles on Team Europe, "there is no chance I'm not going to do it."
It's amusing to hear behind-the-scenes anecdotes from athletes whose interplay at a tournament usually is limited because they're adversaries — and, Djokovic explained, because coaches and physical trainers and other entourage members who get in the way the rest of the year are barred from Laver Cup locker rooms.
So Ruud, a 23-year-old Norwegian currently No. 2 in the ATP rankings, felt comfortable revealing that Nadal, the 22-time major winner so punctilious with his drink bottles during matches, is actually "pretty messy, honestly; shoes and clothes are hanging everywhere" in the changing area.
Or Taylor Fritz, a 24-year-old from California who is the top American man at No. 12, had no problem teasing about the tardiness of Frances Tiafoe, a 24-year-old from Maryland who just cracked the ATP's top 20 after reaching the U.S. Open semifinals.
"Frances is always the one we are waiting for. Always late," Fritz said with a smile. "I'm usually the one that's always late, but he makes me look great."
Told of this, Tiafoe confirmed: "Yeah, me and time just don't really get along."
Perhaps there are elements of the Laver Cup that could be changed. Maybe the credibility would increase if it meant something in the rankings (although the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, for example, don't). Maybe it could involve women and men on both squads — Team Serena vs. Team Roger, say? — adding in mixed doubles, skills competitions and more.
After a defeat in doubles at his first Laver Cup on Sunday, Andy Murray said he thinks it "has a lot of potential for the future."
He also insisted: "The players care a lot about who wins."
That might be true. Regardless, what matters for the Laver Cup is whether fans care about it.
Howard Fendrich has been the AP's tennis writer since 2002. Write to him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich
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