How to Fix Laver Cup

By Zach Schiller

Another Laver Cup, another victory for Team Eur- oh wait! After playing second fiddle every year since the competition’s inception (which features six of the top players from Europe versus their counterparts from the rest of the globe) Team World finally captured their maiden Laver Cup, defeating Team Europe 13-8. Coming into this year’s edition in London, a plethora of pundits and fans had questioned the continued viability of the Europe vs. World format, given World’s inability to notch a victory during the first four iterations of the Laver Cup. However, this victory proves Team World can in fact compete with Team Europe and there is no need to revisit the current format, right? Not so fast. While a World win may quiet some critics of the Laver Cup’s current format, it does not change the fact that in order to maximize its potential, the Laver Cup needs to undergo a facelift of sorts in order to increase fan engagement and provide a more compelling competition.

Before I get on my soapbox discussing what does not work about the Laver Cup, let me first give the Laver Cup credit for its elements that do work very well. First and foremost is the team aspect of the competition. With the exception of those who compete for their country in Davis Cup (an international team competition that takes place throughout the season) and the newly introduced United Cup (a combined international competition with men and women taking the place of the ATP Cup at the start of the year), the ATP season is a solo endeavor with players competing week in and week out by themselves. Sure, players usually have support teams made up of coaches, fitness trainers, physios, etc., but those individuals do their work mostly behind the scenes as the players duke it out solo on the court. Laver Cup, though, offers a unique experience, allowing fierce rivals to join forces as teammates for a weekend. This has notoriously produced some incredible content for the tennis community at large, including Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal teaming up in doubles together, watching fellow players coach their teammates from the sidelines during changeovers, and of course the loads of anecdotes, pictures and videos featuring the wholesome interactions and goofy hijinks the players get up to in the run up and during the actual competition.

The team format is a win for all parties involved. The players have a chance to interact with their peers in a more relaxed, fun way than they otherwise do during the course of the season. As Novak Djokovic noted, “Life on the tour is different, you don’t get to mix up too much with your biggest rivals for obvious reasons, but Laver Cup is a competition that unites us all.” For the fans, it produces incredible content of the game’s stars coming together on and off the court.

As with all teams, a leader, coach, or in this case captain is necessary to guide their group to victory. And who better to guide the superstars of today than men who have filled those shoes before? The first five editions of the Laver Cup have featured 11-time major winner Bjorn Borg captaining Team Europe, and his rival, the notorious John McEnroe playing the role of skipper for Team World. Legends filling the role of captains for the respective sides offers several benefits. The fans who grew up watching Borg, McEnroe and other former superstars who will eventually step into captain roles get nostalgia. Younger fans who did not have the privilege of witnessing some of the game’s greats may become more interested in tennis history and those who have helped push the sport toward what it is today. And the players themselves, even if they were not old enough to watch their captains make their mark on history, still cherish the opportunity to connect with and play for those that came before them. Plus, I am sure future captains will enjoy themselves the way Borg and McEnroe have too.

In addition to these two elements, the format of the Laver Cup is very well thought out. For those unfamiliar, the event takes place over the course of a weekend and features three singles matches and a doubles match each of the three days. Each player needs to compete in singles at least once over the first two days and cannot play more than one singles match on the third day. Additionally, at least four of the six players need to participate in doubles (with no repeat pairings). Matches are best two out of three ad sets, with a ten-point tiebreak in lieu of a full third set if the players split sets. Each match win is worth one point on Friday, two points on Saturday, and three points on Sunday. The first team to 13 points wins the Laver Cup. In the event of a 12-12 tie, a set of doubles that can feature any two members from a team (the only time a previous pairing can play together again) would decide the champion.

The format and scoring system of the event naturally lend themselves to creating compelling conditions for the competition. For one, a team is not able to win the Laver Cup before Sunday even if they somehow manage to sweep all eight matches on Saturday and Sunday. This ensures that a hint of intrigue will always linger heading into Sunday even if the score seems out of reach. Additionally, the rules provide a bit of fairness to the competition making sure that no one competes too much or too little as everyone plays at least once, most of the team members play doubles, and players have a limit as to the number of times they are able to step on the court. Finally, strategy on the part of how the captains pick their players (more on this later) and set their lineups can certainly have an impact on determining which side emerges victorious. Captains have to consider what players they want to send out for the more valuable Day 2 matches versus Day 1, select who they think their most in form players are for the pivotal Day 3 matches, and create compatible doubles pairings from guys who predominantly play singles. An exception to this and an example of strategy that paid off this year was McEnroe selecting Jack Sock for Team World (a former top ten player currently ranked outside the top 100 in singles but one of the best doubles players in the world) and using him in all three of World’s doubles matches, two of which they won, en-route to winning the Laver Cup.

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Finally, the event’s host location alternating between a new city in Europe and a city in another part of the world every other year is great for tennis as it allows a new community to experience the Laver Cup up close and emphasizes that professional tennis unlike almost any other sport truly traverses the globe. With the exception of this past year’s edition in London, the first four host cities of Prague, Chicago, Geneva, and Boston do not host ATP Tour level events (the same goes for the next two host cities of Vancouver and Berlin). This allows a new city and their residents the opportunity to witness top tier tennis talent up close and personal and perhaps inspire some younger fans in attendance who will make up the future of the game. Federer, a co-founder of the Laver Cup, noted himself that, “When you have an event like this [Laver Cup] in a city or in a country, it can really trickle down into the juniors if you do it really well. And I think that’s also been part of the Laver Cup’s duty in a way to leave something behind. So, they’ve also been out in the community, making sure that they give back as well.” Though the World host cities have exclusively resided in North America thus far, the plan is to eventually move the event to other cities across the globe as Laver Cup CEO Steve Zacks said in June, “Our plan has always been to take the event all over the world.” This would do wonders to keep expanding tennis’ outreach. 

After five iterations of play it is evident that the Laver Cup has several great attributes that provide a good baseline from which to work with. However, if the Laver Cup wants to truly maximize the wealth of potential it has as a positive force for tennis, the event needs to largely reimagine its makeup. The first and most obvious change that has percolated through the tennis community for some time now is to do away with the current Europe vs. World format. Yes, I know this may come across as an odd time to reintroduce this argument coming off the heels of Team World’s first victory, but I caution observers from overreacting to this result and invite people to look below the surface for the reasons supporting this change.

Looking at this past year’s result, World’s breakthrough came against a physically compromised Roger Federer who for all intents in purposes was already retired, Rafael Nadal, who was at less than 100% and dealing with personal issues, Novak Djokovic, who carried a large load for Europe but was dealing with a right wrist issue during the competition, and Andy Murray, who was included on the roster more for ceremonial purposes and in acknowledgement of his career rather than current form. Though one could point out that Europe still had world #2 and U.S. Open finalist Casper Ruud, Stefanos Tsitisipas, and alternates Matteo Berrettini and Cam Norrie, Team Europe was certainly not at full strength this year. Even if one looks beyond the excuses for Europe’s loss, the fact remains that Europe still leads the head-to-head 4-1 and for good reason. Right now, nine of the top 10 players in the Pepperstone ATP rankings all hail from Europe. While this is not always the case, the top ten has been heavily Euro-dominated from the Monday after the French Open (the first set of rankings used to determine qualification spots for the Laver Cup) through the present day. Nearly three-quarters of the players who have held a top ten ranking over the course of that time period since 2017 are European. For further context, over the first five iterations of the competition, 25 top ten players have suited up for Europe while World has only had two. And though players outside the top ten can certainly beat the best players in the world, the number of European players in the top ten over this period of time and the rankings of the respective members of the last five matchups show that the 4-1 edge enjoyed by Team Europe thus far is not an anomaly. 

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Unfortunately for future Team Worlds, the situation does not get much rosier both in the short and long-term future. The aforementioned Ruud, Tsitsipas, and Berrettini, along with Alexander Zverev and Daniil Medvedev all have at least one major final under their belt (and a U.S. Open win in Medvedev’s case) and range in age from 23-26. In short, these guys are not going anywhere anytime soon. Unless of course they get beaten out for roster spots by younger European players including 19-year-old U.S. Open champion and world #1 Carlos Alcaraz, 21-year-old rising superstar Jannik Sinner, and other ascending prospects under 21 with future top-ten potential like Holger Runne, Lorenzo Mussetti, and Jack Draper. And that is not even mentioning current top ten players Andrey Rublev, Hubert Hurkacz, and Norrie. Clearly Europe’s stables are oozing with present and future talent. And while Team World boasts its own ascending players like Felix Auger-Alliasime, Taylor Fritz, Denis Shapovalov, and Frances Tiafoe, along with the young American trio of Sebastian Korda, Jenson Brooksby, and Brandon Nakashima, plus Taiwan’s Chun Hsin-Tseng, it does not look like future Team Worlds have the level of talent or depth necessary to make any sustained inroads against Team Europe.

Given the lack of past success Team World has enjoyed against Team Europe that seems destined to continue, it’s time to do away with a format pitting imbalanced regions of talent against each other and truly embrace what the Laver Cup is in order to provide more intrigue and a better, more engaged fan experience: The All-Star Game of tennis. Like the current Laver Cup, my new proposed version would still consist of two teams of six players plus an alternate run by a captain and follow the same scoring format and rules governing player usage while alternating cities every year. The similarities largely end there, though. The first step in assembling the two all-star teams would be to figure out who would be captaining them. After the Australian Open, the Laver Cup, in conjunction with the Tennis Hall of Fame, would release a pool of former legends of the game who are eligible to be selected as captains. Once assembled, this pool would be turned over to the fans who would vote for who they would want to see captain the teams. The top two vote getters would be named the captains for that year’s event, with a grand reveal at the start of Indian Wells. Captains would not be eligible for selection for four years after they are selected in order to reintroduce as many deserving legends as possible to the tennis community.

Regarding the selection of players, the current Laver Cup format states that three of the six players qualify based on their ranking the Monday after the French Open while the other three players are filled by captain’s picks announced by  the start of the U.S. Open. Under this new proposed format, first priority would not go to the highest ranked player, but the major champions from that season instead. In a sport that seems to prioritize major titles more so than world rankings, it makes sense for an all-star emphasized Laver Cup to offer its first spots to the champions of the most difficult trophies to win in tennis. Based on the number of major champions that accept an invitation, a combination of eight total spots will be filled based on champions of the four majors first, followed by the highest ranked non-major champions after the conclusion of Wimbledon rather than the French Open (This allows more of the season to play out). The remaining four spots are specially reserved. Two of those spots are held for a captain’s wild card, where a captain can choose any player they want for their roster. The final two players will be chosen by the fans in another online vote starting after Wimbledon with the results revealed at the start of the U.S. Open. Alternates will be the next two highest ranked players who were not included among the original selected players. Once the pool of players and alternates are finalized, a live televised draft will be held after the U.S. Open where the captains take turns selecting the players who will make up their team from the available pool of players, along with their respective wild cards.

This newly imagined Laver Cup accomplishes three major goals that all all-star sports events should strive for. With regards to fan engagement, keeping the rotating host city format with cities that do not normally host ATP events combined with letting fans play a part in selecting the captains and a member of each team will cause fans to feel more connected and engaged with the event. On the part of the players, having the opportunity to join forces with other peers at the top of the game in fantasy/superteam with different hall of fame captains would serve as a nice reward and acknowledgement of their achievements throughout that season. And finally, this new format would lead to more competitive matchups between the new teams as one side will not have most if not all of the highest ranked players based on geography.

Before I start taking victory laps congratulating myself on these enhancements to the Laver Cup, there are a couple of criticisms I foresee coming that I want to address. The first, stemming from my central decision to axe the Europe vs. World format, will claim that I am mistaken in my belief that the Laver Cup is an all-star game and that its purpose is to function as tennis’ answer to the Ryder Cup (A golf competition between the United States and Europe that occurs every other year). While this argument seems compelling at first glance, it ultimately falls short. Sports are undoubtedly more enjoyable if there exists a certain degree of intrigue or uncertainty over the outcome. The Ryder Cup enjoys the success it does in part due to the evenness of the two teams. Since the current format was introduced in 1979 pitting Europe against the United States, Europe holds a slight 13-11-1 edge over the Americans. Unfortunately the Laver Cup does not seem destined to have the same level of parity enjoyed by the Ryder Cup as previously discussed. And while the old adage in sports of “anything can happen” always holds true, it becomes hard to justify the continuation of the Europe vs. World format if World struggles to make the rivalry competitive. 

Additionally, even if one were to look past the competitive disadvantage World finds themselves at, the players do not feel a strong enough emotional attachment to the concept of Europe, and certainly not World, to justify continuing this unequal format. Existing international competitions already provide players the chance to represent their country in a team environment outside the regular rhythm of the ATP season. And one of if not the primary motivation of a player participating in those competitions is the pride they feel competing on behalf of their homeland. I can guarantee that representing Europe or the World is not the main motivator for a player agreeing to participate in the Laver Cup. Instead, it is the unique opportunity afforded to the top players in the world to join a team of their fellow elite peers in a more relaxed, jovial environment than they would normally experience throughout the season. 

Another expected criticism would point out that all-star games in other sports will often lack a degree of competitiveness on the part of the players and that taking away the Europe vs. World format and having Laver Cup instead focus on its all-star nature would discourage players from putting in as much effort or intensity into their matches, or even show up at all. While I appreciate the spirit of this argument, it ignores a couple of different factors that would make this not the case in tennis. Starting with the comparison to other all-star games in sports such as football, basketball, and hockey for example, those sports require contact in various degrees as part of the game and the quality will inevitably suffer if physical elements are taken out of those games. All-star caliber players understandably are not going to want to risk injuring themselves in an exhibition game in order to make a hard hit, play aggressive defence, etc. Tennis naturally does not have the same degree of contact or physicality as those other sports so players would not be risking injury in the same way if they were to play the way they normally would during a regular match. 

Plus, it may sound cliche but at the end of the day, the players at the Laver Cup earned their selection in part because they are elite competitors who do not like to lose. “Once a tennis player shows up, he wants to win,” noted Federer in an interview this past June discussing the Laver Cup. Even in a match with no ATP points on the line, players still hate to lose. “The players care a lot about who wins. You cannot be on the tennis court with all of these guys, top players that we all have huge respect for, and the captains on the side of the court, Rod Laver [yes that Laver] in the stands, and not care about the result,” said Andy Murray in a press conference after the first day of matches. Thus, no matter the format, expect players selected to compete in the Laver Cup to put their best foot forward when they step foot on that all-black indoor hard court.

The Laver Cup ultimately succeeds as an event in large part because it provides a different setup from the rest of the season, allowing top players to compete as teammates while coming together and bonding off the court, thus giving fans access to incredible content. And while the first five editions have proved largely successful, there is certainly room to keep improving upon a great foundation. By allowing fans to have a say in the crafting of the teams, emphasizing the top talent in the world, and having the captains draft their own all-star star teams without being bound to unequal geographic boundaries that hold no particularly strong emotional attachment, the Laver Cup could reach its full potential and truly become what Federer described it as: “An All-star weekend, but with intensity.”

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