Serious business in pursuit of greatness: Inside the Laver Cup story

Entertainment and legacy: hand in hand

When the Laver Cup was held for the first time in 2017, it was touted as a congregation of big stars with guaranteed matchups as opposed to the luck of the draws. It was the best of tennis and entertainment, a format that catered to the fast-paced nature of modern sport and the viewers’ shorter attention spans. But moving beyond the perspective of an onlooker, we find a deeper meaning in this idea. While being entertaining, the Laver Cup is grounded in a legacy that seeks to honor past heroes and instil that spirit in the young players. At least, that’s how Roger Federer likes to put it.[1]

The foundation of Laver Cup is a commercial model that markets itself as an all-star event with thrilling match-ups. However, modern sport is full of such spectacles, with tournaments like the International Premier Tennis League, or football’s International Champions Cup in the pre-season. Yet, the uniqueness of this model lies in the way it has been able to leverage a historical connect and attempt to create a legacy that the other two have not. For starters, it is named after Australian tennis legend Rod Laver, the only person to ever have won the original “Grand Slam” twice (The Australian, French, Wimbledon and US Open in the same year), and the cup contains a molten part of one of Laver’s first individual trophies.[2] Modeled around golf’s Ryder Cup, it has Team Europe squaring off against Team World, with both teams captained by legends, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. The duo were fierce rivals in the 1980s and were known as Ice and Fire respectively. Add to this an opportunity for rivals like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to become teammates, and this is a unique recipe for success. For Laver Cup, it is no longer about what it would take to sell the sport to people. It instead becomes a larger phenomenon that attempts to create a wholesome and satisfying experience for everyone involved, including the players and the crowd.

Of course, a huge part of its initial success has been a result of the financial backing the event has received and marketing strategy. The event is backed by the US Tennis Association and was formed by Tennis Australia, Brazilian investor Jorge Paulo Lemann, and Roger Federer’s sports management company, TEAM8. Federer himself has marketed the event quite vigorously and utilized both his iconic status and celebrity prowess to help the event gain traction. The results, as can be seen, are quite spectacular.


Spot-on Strategy to Stellar Statistics –

Choosing cities like Prague and Chicago for the first two editions could be considered a departure from the script. It may seem strange to find a tennis crowd in cities that are lesser-known destinations on the tennis map, but the gamble seems to have paid off. The 2018 edition, in Chicago, saw an attendance of more than 93,500 people over the 3 days, which is quite remarkable for a city that hasn’t hosted professional tennis events for over three decades.

The ticket prices, while not exceptionally low, were significantly below the Grand Slam tournaments. The prices for one day’s session began around $180[3], compared to US Open, where the Men’s Semi Finals itself start around $295.[4] While the average price for good seats was well over $500[5], it was nowhere near the thousands of dollars that spectators would have paid to watch a Grand Slam final, which still wouldn’t guarantee a match among the biggest stars. Clearly, the Laver Cup offered a better value proposition for the fans, who would feel content knowing that they were watching serious and competitive tennis.

This overarching notion of trying to make tennis accessible to all, be it based on location or ticket prices, has allowed the tournament to tap into the interest of the tennis fandom as a whole, rather than an elite minority who can afford to visit the Grand Slams. Their unique city selection is set to inspire a growing audience, particularly with the tournament being held in Federer’s home country next year, whereas the lower ticket prices allow for more people to be able to attend. However, the fundamental divergence that can be seen is in the spirit of the tournament.


The divergence in spirit

One of the best things about Laver Cup is that in spite of its apparent similarity to a commercial entertainment exhibition, that is just not what it is. This difference is largely thanks to the players’ own perception of the tournament as a meaningful competition, rather than a paid vacation. The fact that eight of the eleven matches played this year had match tiebreaks and that so many players saved match points to win, is testament to the player’s investment in the competition.[6] As opposed to tournaments like IPTL, where incentives and contracts become an issue, the Laver Cup is, as John McEnroe puts it, is “one-hundred percent serious.” [7]

The format of matches itself induces adrenaline and thrill, while not going into an altogether unrealistic and alienated territory from the game itself. Each match features a best-of-three sets format with a 10-point shootout as a tiebreaker, as opposed to the deciding set in conventional best-of-three or best-of-five matches. The use of a tiebreaker keeps matches shorter, making each point and minute more valuable, as momentum shifts quickly and significantly. As Rod Laver himself mentions about the format, “you’re not going to leave and go off and have a hot dog. You’re going to watch the match.”[8] The power of the format has kept people gripped to their seat, but that thrill feels naturally brought about, without too much tweaking or customization.

In spirit, Laver Cup is driven to succeed in a highly commercial era, but it aims to do so without compromising on the essence of the game. It seeks to leverage both a legacy and big star power in a world where tournaments choose to prioritize one over the other. The question is, can this leverage last, given the looming uncertainty?


Preserving greatness in times of uncertainty

As of now, men’s tennis hinges on stars like Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, whose sustenance has spearheaded the sport for over a decade. But there is a genuine question of the vacuum in the sport once they retire. This has also translated to a rising concern of the young stars failing to take up the mantle, as currently, none of the players under 30 have won a single Grand Slam.[9]

Besides that, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) is also currently riddled with adjusting new tournaments in an already tiring 11-month tennis season. With a revamped Davis Cup and the World Team Cup planned in the coming years,[10] an excessive overload of team events in tennis from none to so many might seem to chip away from Laver Cup’s relevance in its early years.

From a preliminary perspective, all of these things can complicate matters for an event barely two years old. However, transition years in different sports are common, and tournaments have often sustained themselves through that period. One thing Laver Cup has that these other tournaments don’t, is a perfect time slot – two weeks after the US Open. But, it is these initial transition years that shall matter the most in its bid to cement its own legacy, while maintaining its popularity.

Nonetheless, since the sport is approaching a time where the biggest names are at the twilight of their careers, it is definitely going to be the main assessment of Laver Cup’s sustainability to maintain its success in such an uncertain time.














Vaibhav is a second year undergraduate majoring in Economics. He has diverse interests such as politics, literature and tennis, and loves to engage in endless discussions on anything remotely related to them. He loves writing and believes that it allows for a thoughtful consideration of inputs, making it much better than impulsive responses. Among other things, he loves playing tennis, reading new books, quizzing and listening to varieties of music.

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