Behind Roger Federer, inaugural Laver Cup a big success

Alexander Zverev was about to serve to fellow young sensation Denis Shapovalov in just the third match of the Laver Cup when the rustle of applause among the crowd inside Prague's 02 Arena quickly morphed into a roar. Zverev, obliged to pause, looked up at the giant video screen to see that the fuss wasn't about him, but about the visage of Roger Federer.

Zverev smiled and waited. When the noise subsided, he called to the sideline, "Now put up a picture of Rafa, too!"

Smart lad. Good sense of humor. He knows his place in the order of things, and his place -- and everyone else's -- at the Laver Cup was to be the subordinate of the two most successful Grand Slam champions of all time.

For Federer, he isn't just the most successful player on the planet, as well as the most admired, but is the driving force behind the Laver Cup exhibition. The inaugural event was held this past weekend, with Team Europe defeating Team World 15-9.

Federer did not dot all the i's and cross all the t's on all the Laver Cup contracts, but the event was his idea. It's hard to imagine the event would have been such a spectacular success without his burning desire to honor Rod Laver. Of course, the Swiss icon brings in many sponsors and is deeply respected by his fellow players as both a role model and a peer.

The staging was elegant (although there's some debate about that gray court), the crowds abundant and the players delighted to be team members.

"To have an absolute legend [in captain Bjorn Borg] on the bench with me, and to get advice from Roger and Rafa, you cannot be higher in tennis," Team Europe's Dominic Thiem said to the media afterward.

Surprisingly, even the fears of a horrible mismatch because of the superior on-paper strength of Europe turned out to be unfounded. That was because the event-scoring system is a great playing-field leveler. There were four matches per day, with wins worth one point Friday, two Saturday and three Sunday. With only 13 points needed to win the event, Sunday's three-pointers loomed huge.

This event aspires to become something like tennis' Ryder Cup. Based on this weekend, it's an attainable goal. The mix of singles and doubles, with six players on each side, is both appealing and (for tennis) unique. The scoring system will safeguard against an imbalance of power. Actually, if Juan Martin del Potro, Kei Nishikori and/or Milos Raonic had been available to play for Team World, even a simple one-point-per-win scheme might have resulted in a competitive event.

The in-match scoring system (two sets and a match-tiebreaker if the players split sets) was credible and satisfying. So was the degree of involvement and intensity by the players. Nadal, who awoke at 4 a.m. local time last Thursday to get some practice time, told the media, "An exhibition match? I don't practice before an exhibition match normally."

There were certainly moments of exhibition-style levity and gagging around, but that was partly because the benches of both teams were right there on the sidelines, and these are mostly young guys. At least none had their faces buried in smartphones.

So what's next? Much of this event was about Federer's magnetic appeal, personal power and charm. We don't know how potent those qualities will be when he's no longer an active force on the game. Even the greatest champions begin to lose influence once they're in eclipse or fully retired. On the plus side, Federer got this event off to a great start, and everything he touches appears to turn to gold anyway. He seems to have all the qualities of an outstanding entrepreneur.

But when a reporter compared the interest quotient of Federer and Nadal's successful debut as a doubles team to that of a solar eclipse, it made you wonder whether the magic of this moment can last.

"It was a success, but this isn't just about us," Federer said. "The celebration of Rod Laver and having [team captains] John [McEnroe] and Bjorn there overrides the doubles, but this was still an important moment for us."