The 2021 Laver Cup is Here

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The 2021 Laver Cup matches begin Friday in Boston. After a Covid-induced postponement, the fourth edition of the annual competition is back.

Four years ago, as the first Laver Cup matches began in Prague, almost nobody really knew what to expect. Would it be a glorified exhibition and money grab? A hit and giggle party among the elite of professional tennis? How would the fans receive the matches?

A money grab? Maybe.

A hit and giggle? No way.

Images and replays of Team Europe’s Roger Federer coaching young Alexander Zverev on Day 1 or Team World’s Nick Kyrigos falling down crying after narrowly losing the decider on Day 3 to cement the fact that the Laver Cup is a serious competition.

While there are many questions that still need to be answered this weekend, here’s what to know as the Laver Cup returns:

How It Works

Team Europe and Team World each field six man rosters captained by legends of the game. For the fourth time, Team Europe is led by Bjorn Borg and Team World by John McEnroe. Players either qualify by ranking or gain a spot through being a captain’s pick.

There are four matches each day, three singles and one doubles match.

Played over three days, each day’s matches increase in point value. In order to guarantee that no team wins the cup before Sunday, a full 50% of the points are awarded on Sunday. A team must win 13 of 24 total points to claim the Laver Cup.

Day 1 – 4 matches x 1 point = 4 points. 16.5% of total points available
Day 2 – 4 matches x 2 points – 8 points. 33.5% of total points available
Day 3 – 4 matches x 3 points = 12 points. 50% of total points available

If Team Europe and Team World are tied at 12-12, a one-set doubles match is played to determine the winning team.

Criticism and Strategy

With justification, many pundits shake their head at the weighting of the value of matches. Making one match count more than another rings of staging and can give the feel of an exhibition. Artificial weighting guarantees Sunday ticket holders do not know the final outcome. Still, the format opens the door for key strategic decisions and second guessing.

Since no player can play singles more than twice and all six team members must play singles on Day 1 or Day 2, is it better to put a team’s best players out Friday to try to grab a lead or wait until Saturday for more valuable 2-point matches? On the inaugural  Day 1 in 2017, McEnroe sent out youngsters Denis Shapovalov and Frances Tiafoe as part of his singles contingent. By the end of Match 3, Team World faced a tough 3-0 deficit. This year, McEnroe entrusts Day 1 to mix of rookies and Laver Cup veterans; will the result be any different?

Additionally, no doubles team can play more than once. Borg slated Alexander Zverev to play doubles with Matteo Berrettini on Day 1, a nice blend of Laver Cup experience and rookie firepower, but they can not play together again on Saturday or  Sunday. Will this come back to hurt Europe?

There are some suggestions to change the format and eliminate some of the uneasiness the valuing of matches brings, but for now the original format remains in use.

Some History

Despite several back and forth weekends, in the brief three-year history of the Laver Cup, the event can be summed up in two words: “Europe wins.” The event is part brainchild of megastar Roger Federer and he has helped lead Team Europe to wins in Prague, Chicago, and Geneva. Along with Federer, either Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal played for Team Europe from 2017-2019. This year, all three stars did not come to Boston, still Team Europe boasts six of the top 11 players in the world, including world #2 Daniil Medvedev.

Digging deeper, in each iteration of the event, Team World has controlled the doubles. Led by American Jack Sock, Team World has won every Day 3 doubles match. As doubles is played first on Day 3, Team World used these matches to grab three key points an  some momentum in hopes of holding the cup at the end of the day. However, while doubles escapes them, Team Europe rallies in Day 3 singles to nudge past 12 points in order to wrest the cup away on Sunday afternoon.

How it is Received

Go back and watch the fans and participants at all previous Laver Cup matches. Any viewer can see that within the arenas–passion, excitement, and intensity reign. Teammates on the bench coach players on change-overs and explode in celebration when players win big points and big games. Tears are shed after losses and jubilation appears after wins. There was event some controversy over lineups and use of alternates in 2019, participants take this seriously. Four time Team World member Nick Kyrgios readily calls the Laver Cup his favorite event of the year.

Outside the arena, crickets. Well, almost. While ESPN carries all four Grand Slam events, the Laver Cup hides on Tennis Channel. Battling NCAA and NFL football for eyeballs in September makes Laver Cup a tough sell for highlight shows and talk radio. This year sharing a weekend with golf’s Ryder Cup will also erode Laver Cup attention. Still, for those in the Laver Cup know, the event is can’t miss.

At a Crossroads in 2021

The 2021 edition of the Laver Cup looks different than the first three. After a year’s delay, the pandemic still impacts indoor events significantly. Masks and vaccine proof are required for entry in Boston and crowds may not be as large. With less than 24 hours until first ball, online ticket re-sellers advertise significant amounts of tickets for sale below face value. Before the pandemic, Boston looked to be an ideal place for this event, but now that remains to be seen. By Sunday, demand and interest may rise, or the circumstances may be too much to overcome.

Besides the pandemic, the absence of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic feels different. While most of the very top players in the world will play, this is an early glimpse as to what big event tennis will look like after the trio of megastars exits the stage. At the same time, Laver Cup veterans Kyrigos, Isner and Zverev continue their streak of playing in every Laver Cup events and their passion does not seem to be waning. Maybe it is a time for a new generation to begin to nudge to the forefront of tennis.

Whatever the circumstances, the Laver Cup is back. It remains to be seen as to if it is better than ever.

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