The inaugural Laver Cup rocked Prague last week, much to the surprise of its many sceptics.
The Team World v Team Europe event, modelled after golf’s Ryder Cup, was organised by Roger Federer and his management company Team8, in partnership with Tennis Australia, the USTA and Brazilian-Swiss investor, Jorge Paulo Lemann.
Captained by Bjorn Borg, Team Europe, that included Federer, Rafa Nadal, Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem and Tomas Berdych, defeated the John McEnroe-led Team World.
The new annual event (except for Olympic years) captured the imagination of tennis fans worldwide, as they got to witness Federer and Nadal as team-mates, and even doubles partners, over three special days in the Czech capital.
And while Laver Cup was deemed a huge success in its first installment, questions remain over its sustainability and future.
We sat down with Federer’s agent and Team8 business partner, Tony Godsick, to delve deeper into the thought behind the tournament, its potential, and biggest challenges.
How do you feel about how the first edition of Laver Cup went? Did it meet your expectations?
It met them and exceeded them all in the same. We knew we were going to create something very special but we had no idea that in year one we would be able to have such a successful event. The fans in Prague were amazing. The players seem to really enjoy themselves. The competition has been very close – the score might not reflect it but with the way we’ve set up the scoring system for the Laver Cup, there’s a chance that something exciting can happen on day three.
Rod Laver did so much for the sport of tennis but a long time ago. And some of this next generation of players are able to learn through this what he really did. Can you imagine today, telling Roger Federer to take four and a half years off of playing Grand Slams just to usher in the professional game? He’d look at me like ‘are you crazy?’
So to be able to celebrate tennis, the past, the current, the future, it’s been incredible. The reception we got here in Prague is great, the electricity, the tennis, how hard the players have tried. We’re all, from an organisational standpoint, really excited.
The event was sold out from start to finish, without an empty seat at the O2 Arena all five sessions. How did you manage to promote it so well?
The players are always important and we have the best players in the world here which is fantastic. Today’s modern game, the players have done a great job promoting it, working with Tennis Australia and the USTA, partners in our organisation, really helped too, because they’ve been helping to push the word and spread the gospel of the Laver Cup around the world.
Tennis fans know when the events are happening, the good events, and they find them. Over 40 per cent of the tickets were bought by people in the Czech Republic and the rest were bought by people from 43 other countries, so credit cards from 43 other countries. The tennis fan is global and they’re willing to travel for great tennis and what we were able to offer them is three days of exceptional tennis with the best players and I think we were very fortunate to have such an incredible first year.
With the different format, and the shortened matches, is there a specific demographic you’re hoping to reach?
Like everybody else, we want the millenials, we do. We want to attract the next generation of tennis fans. I think with this shortened format, two out of three sets is great, but when you play the third set as a 10-point breaker like they do on the ATP tour (in doubles), you know you’re not going to sit there for five or six hours and watch a match.
We did a lot of stuff from a digital content standpoint – capturing the players behind-the-scenes, in the locker room, in the team room, interacting, which we were able to push out on social media. So hopefully we’ll be able to attract a different demographic but we want the traditional demographic too. People talk about the past, we want the traditional tennis demographic because those are the people that are going to actually help usher in the next generation of tennis fans.
So hopefully with different aspects and different ideas we’ll be able to touch all the different demographics. We’ll only know after but we’re looking at different things to make sure we get just that.
Simply put, do you believe tennis is a profitable business in this day and age?
Sure. Absolutely. If it’s done right. In this standpoint, we’re building an event. We’re not building something for one year, we’re building something for 100 years. So you have to invest a lot of money to create your brand, create the product, and make sure the people have a great time. But yeah, tennis is profitable, the Slams are profitable, the 1000s are profitable… I mean I do think the top four players that have dominated the sport, it’s been amazing, and me being the manager of one of them, it’s amazing.
But I also think the fact that four players have dominated tennis for over 10 years hasn’t been the most successful thing for all of tennis because probably there are some tournaments that hear from their sponsors saying ‘hey, do you have Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray?’ and you say ‘no’, they say ‘okay then why would we want to sponsor the event?’ So I think, and you see it now, the next generation is coming. Once there’s parity in the game a little bit more, I think the sport will be healthy.
There’s always the next generation, Roger Federer always says ‘there’ll be another No. 1, there’ll be someone always holding a trophy’. Back when it was Borg and McEnroe and Connors, and then you have Edberg, Becker, then you have Sampras, Agassi, and then you have Federer, Nadal… it’s going to keep coming because tennis creates superstars. Tennis is profitable if done the right way and if you create a product that people like from a sponsorship standpoint, from a TV standpoint, and from a revenue standpoint, it can be profitable.
We’re not in this to make a profit now, we’re in this to build something, for the legacy, to give back to the sport of tennis and hopefully create something with roots that are deep as the Ryder Cup, and that doesn’t happen overnight.
So you believe that this event can thrive even in the absence of Federer and Nadal when they retire down the road?
100 per cent. It’s great that they’re playing and we hope they play for years but the nice thing about this event too is it brings people back. Look at Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Bjorn, I don’t think will ever be a celebrity coach like one of these guys that comes back but we gave him a platform here to come back and coach for a weekend.
So to have Borg and McEnroe today here and honour Rod Laver… I hope one day Roger will be captain of the team, I hope Rafa will be captain of the team, but the next generation stars are coming. Look at Sascha Zverev, this kid is going to be a mega-star. Look at Nick Kyrgios, he’s already a star. These Americans, there’s Frances Tiafoe, there’s a lot of them. And there are a lot of players that actually aren’t here today and we hope that by seeing the product that they’ll want to be here next year and the years to come. You don’t need Federer, Nadal forever, but we hope we have them forever.
There’s been lots of reports about the ITF and the ATP being not too pleased with the emergence of Laver Cup…
Everyone always gets upset in tennis when things happen. I think we are not trying to compete with anybody. People say ‘oh you’re doing this to change Davis Cup’. No we’re not. We are completely different.
When you put it down on paper, the ITF and the Davis Cup, this country versus country, happens four times a year, you don’t know where it’s going to be, the surface changes, it’s got a lot of history, and that’s sort of the Davis Cup.
We are region versus region, we happen once a year, we take the Olympic year off, we don’t play three-out-of-five sets, we’re a completely different product.
Same thing for the ATP. The ATP is great, it’s the platform for men’s tennis, we’d like to work with them, we’ve had discussions with them for years. The ITF… everybody in tennis gets along, but everyone in tennis seems to compete. And I hope that our event can actually in the future be the event that the sport of tennis owns together. That everybody embraces. But you know, people are always quick to – before this event even happened, people say it’s going to kill the Davis Cup. No it’s not. I see it as maybe helping the Davis Cup because the players will see what a great atmosphere team competition can be.
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I’ve been in tennis for 25 years and I know the politics of the game, there’s a lot of different organisations, but we’ve treated this event, in the sport of tennis, we’ve put on white gloves and we’ve made sure we went to a city that doesn’t have an ATP event. Next year, the next city, there’s not an ATP event there. So we’re trying to go to places that want to see the sport of tennis but in no way, shape or form do I think that we’re hurting the game.
Now if we can innovate, and people will take some of the elements that we did and incorporate it, that’s a sign of flattery. But I’ll be honest with you too, we took some ideas from other things like the Davis Cup and we’ve tried to enhance them and use them too.
So I believe that tennis needs to be a family so all this discussion of the politics and people being upset, I look at it as an opportunity to make the sport grow together. Because ultimately, look at the ITF, what’s their goal? To grow the sport of tennis around the world. And I think you could ask every single fan in the stadium ‘did we do that?’ and they would say yes.
Why is the event staged now, coinciding with ATP tournaments, rather than during the offseason?
Obviously at the end of the season, it’s tough. I’ve managed top players my whole career and I know that once the season’s over, the season’s over. The World Tour Finals, especially on the ATP tour, that’s the granddaddy of ATP tennis. Managing Roger Federer, knowing what he does afterwards, these guys don’t want to get together and play another event. So we decided ‘where could we go, that would make the least amount of damage, that in the long run, 25, 30 years from now, what would be better for the sport of tennis?’
And we worked with a lot of people who are in the politics and the leadership of the game and we found this time. So we hope people like it, we’re excited about it, but once things happen at the end of the season we’d also be competing with Davis Cup, we don’t want to do that. We were sensitive, we didn’t want to go near their finals. That’s their granddaddy so that’s why we picked this date, two weeks after the US Open.
What would be the biggest challenge moving forward?
Continuing to innovate, getting the tennis family to love what we’re doing, everybody in the tennis family. We want to bring this around the world because as I said before this will help spread the gospel of the sport that we all make a living in. And so I think potentially one day if we go to places like South Africa or we go somewhere in China, getting the players to go all that way, but I think if we build the product, we make it accessible and easy and treat the players well, the sponsors, the broadcasters, people, like the Ryder Cup, will look at it as a staple of their calendar and we’re really excited about the future.