Mailbag: Instead of a Separate Competition, Let's Add Women to the Laver Cup
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at email@example.com or tweet him @Jon_Wertheim.
• Next up on the podcast, Christopher Eubanks, an up-and-coming 23-year-old American who was one half of the best post-match handshake we’ve seen in years. He was delightful as we talked Laver Cup, life on the road and how tennis can mint more African-American players…
• Another podcast I have been asked to help promote, and I do as told….in the spirit of Laver Cup, here’s a discussion of Federer and Nadal.
• On Sunday, Naomi Osaka took the Osaka title and I asked on twitter whether a player had ever before won their name. @Jonathanliew (whom you should all be following) had one of the great all-time comebacks when responded: Pat Cash.
On that note—and with a heavy emphasis on Laver Cup, per your questions—we move onward with your questions…
You noted in your last Mailbag that Laver Cup could establish more evenly-matched teams by having a Captain's draft between Federer and Nadal or Djokovic. I would argue that this sort of thing will (eventually) go through a cycle, and that the World Team will eventually be more formidable (think of this format in the Sampras/Agassi era). To create closer competition more expediently, they really should introduce a women's team event. For that matter, what would be your Team Europe vs. Team World in a women's Laver Cup (we’ll call it the BJK Cup, or the Navratilova Cup)?
—Ian Scott, Winnipeg, Canada
• Let’s start by continuing our applause for the Laver Cup. It has some flaws and considerable room for improvement, which we will discuss shortly. But overall, what a tremendous addition to the tennis landscape. It’s only three days long—and three years old—but already achieves so much. A crowd friendly format. A way to showcase tennis’s various virtues. A way to celebrate Federer and Nadal. A means of braiding together the sport’s past, present and future. A way to break the all-but-one-player-leaves-the-tournament-with-a-loss. The real insight it provides—from Federer’s NSFW pep talk, to Nadal’s intuition for strategy, to Kyrgios’s behavior in a team environment—might be its biggest virtue of all.
I am totally with you on the need for parity, but I’m skeptical that it’s cyclical. Tennis’s gravitational center is Europe, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. I mentioned last week that so long as European men have won every major played over the last decade (let that sink in), the European/World distinction is a bit flimsy. I suggested letting Federer and Nadal draft players, just as the 2019 NBA All Star game pitted “Team LeBron” against “Team Giannis.” I jokingly suggested as well that you could have “team democracy” versus team “slinking into autocratic nationalism” which at least would split up Europe. (“Fabio, you and Andy go over there. Sascha, stay here.”)
The obvious solution—and more broadly speaking, an obvious way to improve the event—add women. Right now, Laver Cup fails the Bechdel test. Why wouldn’t you expand this tennis-palooza to include Serena, Naomi Osaka, Andreescu, etc? Everyone wins. It’s a way to differentiate from the other team events. And not least, it would help the competitive balance.
So what does Bjorn Borg actually do at the Laver Cup? As far as I can tell, he has the best job in the world. “Oh, my player is struggling? Let me just get two GOATs to come off the bench and coach for me”. All joking aside, I think the format is incredible as it lets us see into the minds of the players and how they think. Sometimes it felt like what they were saying could be in a movie script…(Roger saying to Rafa, “Try more spins and angles, just like the old days man”). Another great win for the Laver Cup and for tennis. The Cup has so many benefits to the sport, the most in my opinion being for certain players to get confidence by realizing the can compete with the best (a la Fritz beating Thiem). The team format really lets players into the minds of legends. Fognini has to have learned something about competing just from sitting next to Roger/Rafa and hearing their ideas and mentalities.
• While Bjorn Borg’s hair remains fit for surfing, you’re right to wonder about his role. He’s an introvert and a soft-spoken guy to begin with. Then he has the GOAT tag-team of Federer/Nadal willing to impart wisdom and advice on their contemporaries. You get the feeling Borg, while conferred the “captain” title, is basically saying, ‘Um, yeah. What they said. I don’t have much to add except, um, keep fighting. Let’s bring it in on the count of three.”
Your other point is dead on. The real beauty of Laver Cup: the glimpses it provides https://www.si.com/tennis/2019/09/21/laver-cup-roger-federer-rafael-nadal-coaching. Dynamics, interactions, unguarded moments. I don’t care about Federer cursing. If anything, it was humanizing. Far more interesting: he essentially told Zverev what his peers think of him. “You have a lot of talent but have a tendency to self-sabotage with your crap attitude.”
Need to manifest this into the universe...when are we going to get a female version of this awesome event? Could easily be run the weekend prior I would think. On paper we'd have less of a Globetrotters v. Generals dynamic. World (Barty, Osaka, Andreescu, Serena, Sloane, Wang) v. Europe (Halep, Kvitova, Plisokova, Svitolina, Muguruza, Kerber). I imagine you could get Evert and Navratilova to captain. Certainly would keep my interest in fall tennis more than having three smallish events in Asia with depleted fields and low attendance.
• I’ll bite here again, just to reinforce the point. Adding women would solidify Laver Cup and add a dimension. It would make an eloquent statement about the inclusiveness and big-tentness of tennis. Above all, it would help the competition. When it comes to men’s tennis, “Europe versus world” is akin to an igloo-building competition putting “Alaska versus the other 49 states.” Adding Serena, Naomi Osaka, Ash Barty, Bianca Andreescu, Keys, Stephens, etc. will, to mix sports metaphors, level the playing field.
Amazing that Team Europe leaves off top 15 guys like Goffin and Khachanov, while Team World is having to field much lower ranked guys like Sock and Fritz.
• Well, that’s what the Belgian and Russian Federations get for not investing.
That was a joke. But not really. This is tennis in a nutshell. I’ve made clear my fondness for the Laver Cup. So many of the sport’s virtues are on display. It breaks the mold. The level of joy is striking and considerable. The sport, as a whole, should be contorting itself to make this work.
But tennis being tennis, here come the politics and conflicts. First you have the ITF. Shamed/spurred by the popularity of Laver Cup, in the face of its longstanding unwillingness to change Davis Cup, the ITF now wants the Laver Cup’s date. (Digression: The ITF reminds me of the flabby and inattentive spouse who refuses to change. Finally, the partner says: “Enough is enough” and lines up a more attractive alternative. Then, and only then, ITF gets off the couch, shaves, put on cologne and makes a dinner reservation. “I’ve changed, Baby. Give me another shot! We can make this work!”)
Anyway, to fortify its position, the Laver Cup partnered (awkwardly and problematically) with the ATP. But wait, the ATP also catches Team Tennis fever and launches its own silly team competition for January in Australia. For those scoring at home: we’re up to three team events all squeezed between the U.S. Open and Australian Open.
You also have the thorny issue of the investors. The USTA sunk millions into Laver Cup according to public filings. You could ask how a non-profit justified putting seven figures into a private, for-profit event that, best-case-scenario, brings tennis to the U.S. for one week every two years. (I’m told that for 2020 Laver Cup was close to picking Canada as the host, before pulling back and picking Boston.)
Of course, you could also say that if your mission is to “grow and promote tennis,” why not take a stake in a popular, feel-good event? Regardless, having federations as investors is dicey. And that investment clearly came with some sort of expectation that American players be included. Which is how you get Jack Sock—ranked 210 in singles and 37 in doubles—on the roster. (Tennis Australia is an investor, too, for those of you wondering why Jordan Thompson was there and how an event predicated on sportsmanship and decorum and a reverence for the past invites Nick Kyrgios.)
All of which is to say: we wish Laver Cup well. It is a fine new property that has spruced up the neighborhood. The “bones” are solid. It plays well in the marketplace. It plays well as a TV proposition. It’s found favor among fans and players. You just hope it doesn’t get diminished by tennis’s congenital in-fighting and flawed governance.
If the Laver Cup is an "honest competition" and not an exhibition, as you claim, then why is it scored like a game show instead of a sporting event? Wins are worth double the second day and triple the third. That's more "Family Feud" than sport. Strictly a gimmick to keep the so-called competition from being decided before the last day.
• I’m not sure it’s either/or. Can’t you have an honest competition and an experimental scoring system? Can’t you and I play points out of hand, first to 20, and still try our hardest? As for making sure there’s still suspense on the last day, so what? Tournament directors raise this point all the time: “In golf, you’re assured that the stars play at least half the sessions; and there’s a good chance they will be there for all four sessions. How many times has a player cooked up a lousy round on Thursday, recovered Friday, made the cut and played the entire tournament? In tennis, you shell out appearance fee money for a star; and you have no guarantee they will last more than one round.”
We should acknowledge the genius in choosing [Jack] Sock for Team World.
• For a minute there, it looked like the MVP of the whole event might be a guy ranked outside the 200 who has yet to win a tour-level match in 2019 and (if we’re being honest here) was only in Geneva because his federation is an investor in the event.
Correlation does not, of course, equal causation. But if his strong play in Laver Cup can galvanize Sock and fill him with some much-needed confidence…that would be a real win. It would also bolster the Laver Cup’s claim that it is no mere exhibition.
Team Russia versus Team World. You play for Russia if you or one of your parents have been a Russian or a Soviet, thus letting team Russia have Medvedev, Rublev, Khachanov, Zverev, Tsitsipas, and Shapovolov.
• Well played. And if women are playing, you could do worse than Kenin, Anisimova, Sharapova and Kasatkina. Interesting to note: we all grew fond of Medvedev, the Crushin’ Russian. But note that zero Russian women were seeded at the 2019 U.S. Open.
I don’t know how you let the New York crowd off the hook. Their booing of Medvedev was disgraceful. And so was his behavior. I know you said he went from villain to hero. He didn’t in my eyes!
• For the record you weren’t alone. Here’s Ole of Toronto: “I hate to lump you in with the other American journalists that I’ve been complaining about, but trying to convince us that French Open crowds are worse than U.S. Open ones as you did in your last mailbag? C’mon, you’re better than that. The way every Andreescu missed first serve was greeted with cheers was completely vile and unfair to a lovely teenager in her first major final. Good for her for winning that match when Serena had every advantage imaginable and then calling out the fans at the end by saying that they were the most difficult thing she had to face. You also know WHY Martina Hingis would say that the French crowds are the worst and that she was the main architect of her own downfall.”
I stand my ground here. It’s a sporting event. It ain’t the Bolshoi Ballet. As for Medvedev specifically, far as I’m concerned this was a win-win. The fans had a Week One “villain,” though it was WWE-style. It was all done with a wink. He wasn’t being vicious; and the crowd kinda, sorta respected his audacity. In the latter two rounds, the fans completely changed their sentiments, betraying an admirable open-mindedness. (“Hate Daniil? Nah. We’re all good, bro. We love this guy!”)
And of course, Medvedev really endeared himself in the final. Yes, with his classic runner-up speech. But most of all with his courage. Even if you didn’t grasp the full dimension of the “Love the Big Three, but hate the absence of challengers” storyline, even the casual fan had to be impressed with the way this guy with the body of Chile, in his first major final, capitulated nothing and made the great Rafa Nadal summon every subatomic particle of mettle.
When Roger won his 14th in Paris, it tied him with Sampras quantitatively but, if he never won another one, arguably placed him in the higher echelon because it gave him the career Grand Slam, a qualitatively greater achievement. Similarly, if Nadal wins the Australian Open, he will tie Federer in number, but that victory will give him a double career Grand Slam, something that--let's be frank--Roger will never get. Part of me still wishes Federer retired already. I just didn't want to see him lapped while he was still active, but, sadly, that now seems inevitable. Here's a thought: What if both (or all three) of them just ended up with the same number of Slams (yeah, right)?
—Sean, San Diego
• I bet we’ve gotten this 10 times since the U.S. Open. “Can’t the Big Three agree on a number—say, 21—and end this race in a three-way tie.” It would unite and not divide fans, salving wounds likely to be born by two of the three camps. It would be a fitting conclusion to a three-man race that features three capable and charismatic candidates.
I get it, but I vote no to price-fixing. This whole business is predicated on competition. It would be wildly off-brand to suddenly contrive a result.
I have an over/under for you: By the end of the 2020 season, there will be five North American women in the top 10.
—Jason Rainey, Austin
• Interesting. I’m taking the under. Serena’s ranking is largely a function of how many events she wants to play. Andreescu makes it. On power and athleticism alone, Madison Keys ought to be there. Sloane Stephens is a having a thoroughly forgettable 2019. Which means that, if form holds, she’ll crush it in 2020. Maybe there’s a surprise. The continuing ascent of Sonia Kenin? A career year from Ali Riske? (The teenagers are constrained by age eligibility.) Maybe we cheat and claim the Haitian side of Osaka? But this time next year? I have a hard time seeing more than four.
You stand by your pick that Dimitrov beating Federer (with a bad back) was the biggest upset of the USO? Well, I stand by my pick that it was Taylor Townsend beating Simona Halep. You're wrong.
• I’m not ready to concede the point. But give me truth serum and I might concede that I am arguing with myself. An American player against an opponent who had lost in the first round in 2017 and 2018? Then again, Halep had won the previous Major and Taylor T., unlike Dimitrov, had to qualify.
Let’s carve out some agreement here: did tennis karma get it right here or what? The next person to say a bad word about Dimitrov will be the first. We all have our stories of his grace and congeniality. I’ll give you one of mine. At the French Open a few years ago, he came to our studio for an interview. Problem was, there was a live match going on. We asked him, cautiously, “Do you mind hanging around until the set is over?” His response: “No, of course, if I’m watching on television, I would rather see the end of this set than me speak!” Then he smiled: “The question is: do you mind if I stay? I just finished my match and haven’t showered yet.”
As for Taylor T., let’s put the redemptive backstory on the back burner and simply say how much we enjoy watching her play and then hearing her reveal herself in the press room.