Rod Laver is “honoured and excited” to have had an event named after him but will also feel a tinge of regret in Prague this weekend. “I would love to have been able to compete in it,” the 79-year-old Australian told The Independent as he looked ahead to the inaugural Laver Cup, which will be held in the Czech capital from Friday until Sunday.
Organisers see the competition as the tennis equivalent of the Ryder Cup. Bjorn Borg’s six-man Europe squad (Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem and Tomas Berdych) will take on John McEnroe’s World team (Sam Querrey, John Isner, Nick Kyrgios, Jack Sock, Denis Shapovalov and Frances Tiafoe).
The tournament, which will feature singles and doubles matches and could see Nadal and Federer playing on the same side of the net for the first time, is named in honour of Laver, who is the only man in history to have won two calendar-year Grand Slams, having claimed all four of the sport’s major trophies in both 1962 and 1969.
Players usually relish the chance to play in a team environment, but many rarely get the chance to do so. Even for those selected to compete in the Davis Cup, Fed Cup or Olympics, the occasions can be few and far between.
Laver played in only 11 Davis Cup ties – after turning professional he was barred from playing for his country – but in his early days spent much of his time in a team environment.
“Each year the Australian association used to pick four or sometimes six of us to travel around the world together playing in tournaments,” Laver recalled. “Younger guys like myself, Bob Mark, Ken Fletcher and Martin Mulligan would get the chance to travel as a group with top players like Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall and Neale Fraser.
“Camaraderie builds. We travelled together to Rome, Paris, Wimbledon, the US, lots of places. In a way I miss it right now. My opponents were also my best friends.
“I learned so much from those days because you would get the chance to practise regularly with these top players. When Hoad and Rosewall were at their best and I was a youngster they had no qualms about saying: ‘Hey kid, let’s go and play.’ That helped me to get up the ladder.”
Laver believes that such an environment would have helped some of his modern-day compatriots. Players like Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic clearly have great ability but have sometimes failed to show the necessary commitment to succeed at the very highest level.
“Nick has got more talent than anybody on the tour, but sometimes his attitude just does damage to his life as a player,” Laver said. “Look at this summer. One moment he’s beating Nadal in in Cincinnati and then with one click the brain goes out and he doesn’t care. That’s a shame because Nick has an unbelievable game. However, I think that will change with maturity.”
One of Laver’s concerns for Kyrgios is on a fitness level. The world No 20 has been dealing with a hip issue over the last year and Laver fears that his big-serving fellow countryman might also have shoulder problems.
“You have to be a little smarter in what you’re doing with your own body,” Laver said. “He’s got a huge serve, but if something happens to his shoulder he might not feel as comfortable any more.”
Juan Martin del Potro and Milos Raonic have both pulled out of the Laver Cup because of ongoing fitness concerns and are among several top players currently sidelined. Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori all announced after Wimbledon that they would not be playing again this year, while Andy Murray is unlikely to return to competition before January.
Laver used to play as many matches as today’s leading men, but believes that the physical nature of the modern game and the use of carbon-fibre rackets, which are much stiffer than the wooden rackets he used to play with, are putting much greater demands on the body.
“Sometimes you’re having to hit 50 balls just to win a point,” he said. “Each match is a huge effort from a physical point of view. You can only hit so many balls before your elbow or some part of your body is going to say: ‘Hey don’t do that to me.’
“These guys are injuring themselves by staying on the baseline and hitting all those heavy top-spin shots. At some stage you’re going to have a problem arise. Looking back, in comparison there wasn’t that much that you could do with a wooden racket. In my day the matches were certainly much less demanding physically.”
The Laver Cup will be staged annually (except in summer Olympics years), the location switching each time between Europe and the rest of the world. However, it remains to be seen how the competition will fit into an already over-crowded schedule. As well as the increased physical load it might place on players there are fears that it will detract from the Davis Cup.
Although the event has been put together by some of the sport’s most respected organisations – including Tennis Australia, the United States Tennis Association and TEAM8, Federer’s management company – it will carry no world ranking points and will be regarded by some as little more than a glorified exhibition event.
Nevertheless, the presence of Federer and Nadal in particular is guaranteed to give this year’s competition wide exposure, with organisers boasting that live TV coverage will be available to more than 900 million households worldwide.
The sport’s two biggest names both welcome the chance to pay homage to Laver. Nadal said that his uncle and coach, Toni, “was always talking to me about everything Rod did for the game” and said it was an honour to be part of an event bearing the Australian’s name.
Federer said it was important for the sport to respect its history and to remember those who had paved the way for later generations. “I’m very happy and proud for Rod and also for myself to be taking part in this great event,” he said.