NEW YORK, N.Y. — After for so long being on the end of Rafael Nadal’s booming forehands, Roger Federer has described it as “absolutely unbelievable” to finally get a chance to appear on the same side of the net as his great rival. The two men, with 31 Grand Slam titles between them, will team up for the inaugural Laver Cup next year, a competition conceived to bring a Ryder Cup style flavor to the tennis tour.
Named after Australian great Rod Laver, who completed the Grand Slam both as an amateur and a professional, the annual event will pit a European team against one from the rest of the world. Created by Team8, a sports agency formed by Federer and his agent Tony Godsick, Tennis Australia and Brazilian businessman Jorge Paulo Lemann, the first edition will take place between Sep. 22-24 in Prague next year.
“It’s going to be absolutely unbelievable to be on the same side of the net as Rafa, finally,” Federer said with a smile at a press conference to launch the event in New York on Wednesday. “It’s a great feeling, rather than always facing that big forehand, now I can actually support it and say ‘hit one more’ and I’ll take a lot of joy out of it.”
The announcement came five days before the start of the final Grand Slam of the year, the U.S. Open. And Federer described it as “painful” to be in New York, but not able to compete at Flushing Meadows as he continues to rehab a knee injury that will rule him out for the rest of the year. But the Swiss was adamant that he will be back on the tour and competing at the Laver Cup for many years.
Nadal, too, has faced questions over his long-term future due to injuries. But, he will feature at the U.S. Open after returning at the Rio Olympics and winning gold in the men’s doubles. Both Nadal and Federer have also won the Davis Cup, the current predominant team competition that pits nations against each other over the course of the season. But those involved in the Laver Cup have been keen to stress its uniqueness.
“You’re not in a country as a group, you’re playing for each other as individuals and then you’re rooting for your competitor in many ways but this time you’re on a team,” Laver said. “That to me has to be a new feeling.”
The camaraderie between the top players, both current and former, is one of the things that makes the event possible and should being a friendly feel, although those involved also want it to be far more than just a glitzy exhibition. Still, for Nadal, too, the chance to team up with Federer, who he has faced off with in eight Grand Slam finals, winning six, is a particular incentive.
“I always love the team spirit, and it’s going to be a very special feeling to be on the same team as Roger. We have been rivals for all our careers, so to be on the same team and even play doubles together will be very, very special.”
The list of names already committed to be involved in the Laver Cup is certainly an impressive one. Along with Federer and Nadal, for the first three years the European team will be captained by 11-time Grand Slam winner Bjorn Borg, while the rest of the world will be led by the Swede’s great rival in their playing days, John McEnroe.
For all four, the chance to honor a man they each, despite their generational gaps, admired, and in some cases idolized, growing up, was a huge draw.
“I’m really happy to be here today, it’s an honor to be part of the first Laver Cup,” Borg, who, unlike McEnroe and many other former greats, has never been lured into a coaching role, said. Rod Laver was my idol when i was a kid. And now he has this new championship event it’s kind of a dream come true. I think it’s going to be a huge thing for tennis.”
Borg and McEnroe will lead teams featuring the four top ranked players for each region based on the ATP rankings following Wimbledon. The captains will then get two picks to form a squad of six that will compete in three singles matches and one doubles match on each of the three days. The matches will be best of three sets, with the final set decided by a 10-point tiebreak. One point will be awarded for a match win on Friday, two on Saturday and three on Sunday in an attempt to ensure that the drama goes right to the wire.
Right now, Borg’s men certainly look set to be favorites. The Big Four that have dominated the men’s tour for the the past decade and more, which includes current world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 2 Andy Murray as well as Federer and Nadal, are all European. The highest ranked non-European is world No. 6 Milos Raonic, whose coaching team McEnroe is currently a part of.
“A lot of things can change in one year,” McEnroe said. “I think there’s going to be a couple of guys that make the breakthrough in the next year or two, theres no question about it. That’s why I think this is going to be a lot more competitive than it may appear at the moment.”
While the Laver Cup adds to a tennis calendar that many within the game have long described as overcrowded and overly grueling, the competition will not be held in Olympic years. And Federer doesn’t believe that persuading players to be part of the event will be an issue.
“I think with the captains and Rod Laver looking over anything, and knowing how much respect has in the game, I would foresee this as a no-brainer in the future for all players wishing to be part of it,” the 35-year-old said. “Why not spend an interesting, fun, cool weekend with all of the best players in the world and those captains.”