Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: Laver Cup is serious business

How fitting would it be if Laver Cup was the curtain-dropper on the ATP season? AP Photo/Jim Young

CHICAGO -- As the wave made its way round the United Center arena Saturday, the music blaring and the darkness probed by a single large spotlight, the players on the World Team bench stood, inciting the crowd. Suddenly Nick Kyrgios pointed and his teammates looked on.

A moment later the spotlight -- and the Jumbotron overhead -- zeroed in on legend Rod Laver as he rose from his seat, flinging his arms in the air. The crowd -- some 18,000 strong -- roared its delight.

It was a poignant moment, ripe with symbolism as past and present met at Laver Cup. The competition could have made a satisfying curtain-dropper on men's tennis for 2018, our final image that of a pile of blue uniforms, including those of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, crushing Alexander Zverev after he clinched the Laver Cup for Team Europe.

But Laver Cup will not be the event that ends the tennis year -- not in the foreseeable future. There are too many stakeholders, and the commitment to a 10-month-plus ATP season is locked in. But it's also crystal clear Laver Cup is here to stay. (Next year, it will be played in Geneva, Switzerland.)

It was a resounding success at every level despite it being only two years old. So much so that it's worth examining where the event fits into the game.

Team World captain John McEnroe probably put it best when he said Laver Cup gives tennis the same high-powered team competition golf has in the spectacularly successful Ryder Cup. Like Laver Cup, Ryder Cup (which pits the United States against Europe) is a bit of an outlier with a one-off format, different rules and, in the case of Laver Cup, no relation to the main tour as far as rankings and statistics go.

"How often does it happen that you get the best of the best, from all over the world, to play in a tennis event?" McEnroe said. "I loved Davis Cup, and even that doesn't have it like this."

So no, Laver Cup is no copycat Ryder Cup. Federer said his desire in conceiving Laver Cup was to provide a platform to celebrate the game and its heroes, along with making it a teachable moment for young players.

When John Isner was asked how "seriously" he took the competition on the first day of play, he replied, "Honestly, that question really annoys me. One-hundred percent serious. This is not an exhibition at all. Not at all. One-hundred percent."

The evidence was plain as day on the court as well as on the team benches. Eight of the 11 matches ended with intense match-tiebreakers, and a number of players fought back from match-point down to win. It turns out that today's pros not only have a powerful hunger for team play, they also hate to lose with their peers looking on from the sidelines.

"Obviously here you're not just playing for yourself," Kevin Anderson told ESPN.com. "You have your whole team with you and you're playing for something different. You feel like you didn't sort of come through for the team. And in my case, I didn't give Nick [Kyrgios] a chance to go out there and play in the decider, so that was really tough."

The elements of Laver Cup that Federer chose to emphasize ensured the competition also ended up having the vibe of an all-star game -- albeit a serious one.

The competitive aspect came through loud and clear, which probably wouldn't be the case if Laver Cup were just another exhibition with a high-powered title sponsor. The idea for Laver Cup was inspirational, and it clearly touched and motivated the players to give their best.

"This week was a true privilege," Grigor Dimitrov said. "I'll cherish these moments. Everybody's IQ for tennis is pretty good. It's easy to talk tennis, not so easy to open up on a personal level. This week has brought us close. It was the true definition of team spirit."

Said Jack Sock: "Kevin [Anderson] and I never even followed each other on Instagram until yesterday."

There was plenty of horsing around to go with bouts of gut-wrenching disappointment. After being unable to track one sharply angled volley in a doubles match because the Team Europe cooler was in the way, Sock paused to rearrange the furniture. After Federer staved off three match points to beat Isner 10-7 in a match tiebreaker, the entire team Europe -- including Bjorn Borg, who's 62 -- hit the deck to do pushups, one for each point won by Federer.

The competition was riveting and the festive spirit was infectious. You could feel it throughout the arena. There was an elaborate fan zone outside the United Center, where players took selfies with ticket-holders when they finished practicing on a specially built court that allowed fans to get close to their heroes, thanks to a 30-foot glass wall surrounding the court.

It's hard to say what the future will hold for Laver Cup.

"This [event], to me, is a no-brainer," McEnroe said. "I don't know. Maybe there will be [ranking] points. But in the meantime, I can't see how we wouldn't look at this and say, 'This is a major positive.'"

Which it was. Even if it isn't the grand finale to the tennis year.