The Laver Cup, which was held in Prague last year, matches an all-star team from Europe against an all-star team from the rest of the world. Djokovic, 31, Federer’s European teammate who won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open recently, should run a close second in terms of public interest to Federer, particularly in a city with a sizable Serbian population.
For now, the Laver Cup, which begins Friday at the United Center, remains an exhibition with higher aspirations. It has failed to attract all the eligible players, even with generous participation fees and $250,000 for each member of the winning team. But the prospect of seeing Djokovic and Federer, often edgy rivals, join forces and likely play doubles together is intriguing.
“They never had an excuse to be on the same team before,” said Tony Godsick, Federer’s agent and the chairman of the Laver Cup. “There was just no reason or platform for it. It’s been a great rivalry, but I think it will be nice for them to be on the same side for a change. Roger’s a former president of the ATP Player Council and Novak is the current president of the player council. These guys will spend five days together, and I imagine these guys will talk some politics, too. Novak’s got a lot on his plate right now, but both are looking forward to the experience. They are the old guys on the team.”
That would not have been true if the Europeans had been at full strength. Rafael Nadal, 32 and back at No. 1, is skipping the Laver Cup after playing in 2017, but he would have had to skip it anyway after reinjuring his knee at the U.S. Open against Del Potro in the semifinals.
Marin Cilic, 29, and Dominic Thiem, the 25-year-old Austrian star, decided to prioritize Davis Cup competition after the U.S. Open instead of recommitting to the Laver Cup. So Federer and Djokovic will join Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov, David Goffin and Kyle Edmund for Europe. The opposing Team World will have Frances Tiafoe, Anderson, John Isner, Diego Schwartzman, Jack Sock and Nick Kyrgios, although Sock remains questionable because of a hip injury that kept him out of the Davis Cup semifinal last week.
Federer has long relished the chance to speak with tennis elders. He has long admired and appreciated Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall from Australia. One of the reasons he hired his boyhood idol Stefan Edberg as a coach was to get the chance to know him personally and pick his brain. Federer once committed to an exhibition tour with Pete Sampras largely because he wanted to bond with Sampras.
“For Roger, it’s inspiring to talk to the legends,” said Severin Lüthi, Federer’s co-coach. “He’s not just saying it. And you know I’m surprised sometimes when you talk to younger players. When Stefan was in the team, sometimes we’d hit with guys and we’d ask them, ‘Do you know Stefan? Or do you still remember him?’ And some of them didn’t. Roger is really interested in the connection with the past.”