This year marks the second annual Laver Cup, a men’s tournament being held in Chicago from Friday through Sunday that features 12 top players, including Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev.
Rod Laver, 80, is an Australian tennis legend. He was the No. 1 player in the world from 1964 to 1970, winning 200 singles titles and 11 Grand Slams.
Laver talks about his namesake tournament, the importance of amateur tennis, and why shorter matches are better. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Last year’s inaugural Laver Cup sold out in just a few hours. Why does this tournament resonate so well with fans?
I think it’s the star power. You’re looking at Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. You have six of the best players from Europe against six of the best players from the rest of the world. You have great matches all the way through.
The other thing that works well is that the matches are not necessarily long. The third set is a 10-point tiebreaker. The pressure of each individual point matters. That’s certainly a different format that works, I think. The scoring system has been a big plus, too.
Is a short match more appealing to fans these days?
A four- or five-set match takes some time. I think you have to accept the fact that some matches are not very interesting. If you get two big servers and they play five sets, you haven’t seen much tennis. I think this is one of the things we do well. It’s one thing when you see two energetic players on the court and they’re playing a great singles match. But when you see two little guys really not playing very well, it’s not fun.
Now, when you have some of the best players in the world playing a quick three-set match, you’re not going to leave and go off and have a hot dog. You’re going to watch the match. I think that’s the thing that we saw last year at Prague.
The quality was so good.
So the key is having a better quality of play for the fans and players?
It’s a combination. I think someone like Novak Djokovic wouldn’t like to be playing a five-set singles match. I think the crowd doesn’t want to see a five-set singles match. But you have two three-set matches on the first day done by 1 p.m. Then you come back at nighttime for a 7 p.m. match and possibly a doubles match. That’s a lot of tennis. That bodes well for the public.
Tennis has become fragmented and territorial with numerous governing bodies, crowded schedules and over management. Is there room for yet another tournament?
We’re in it already. It’s important not to let some of the amateur level play disappear. If you look from 1900 to the Open tennis era, there was a lot of tennis. Look at all these past champions like Don Budge and Fred Perry. Nobody is going to know that these players existed.
I want to bring some of the past champions to the Laver Cup like Fred Stolle and Roy Emerson and introduce them — let people know this is the reason why all of this is happening. Roger Federer, who founded the tournament, felt because of my record, thought it would be a good throwback to the other players to name it after me. Hopefully, my name has helped sell the seats. I’m honored. I love it.
Has it become a meaningful competition or just an exhibition?
It’s neither. It’s not a friendship match. Both players are going to do their best for their team. You’re ranking up points for your team, either for the World Team or Europe Team. It’s not just a friendly game by any means. I think pride of performance and of your own ability to get out there and win a match is always going to be there, especially in the Laver Cup.
There is so much competition out there if you lose to somebody and then play that guy again, he will know he can beat you. You’re not going to go out there with losing on your mind. It’s not lighthearted, buy it’s also not a deadly, drawn-out, pressure-riddled match.
Were you surprised at the tournament’s success?
I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it would be successful, but you never know. How would we get all the players? Would they be there? It turned out that they were just loving to be a part of it. It’s a competition, but it’s not highly pressured. The prize is your performance. I was wondering if it would be a friendly match or really competitive. We found out last year that it’s highly competitive.
John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg are team captains. Can we expect to see this legendary rivalry play out again in some form?
Who knows? Maybe we can get them out to finish the tiebreakers.