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    The Special Role of Laver Cup Captains

    John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg have filled the job since the tournament began, and it’s more than ceremonial.In the first three Laver Cups, the biggest names were the most famous players in tennis: Roger Federer (who helped create the tournament) played each year, Rafael Nadal played twice and Novak Djokovic played once.All are absent this year at the event in Boston, so while six Top 10 players are on board, the biggest names will be the most famous players in tennis circa 1980: the Team World captain, John McEnroe, and the Team Europe captain, Bjorn Borg, both returning for their fourth time.The Laver Cup brings a team sport format to tennis, and the captains have a role unlike almost any other in tennis.Captains recruit and select a team, build team spirit during practices, pick lineups according to the event’s quirky rules and provide in-match coaching.“There’s a lot to consider and a lot of tactics when making out the lineups, so in that sense the captain’s role is pretty important,” said Thomas Enqvist, vice captain of Team Europe.McEnroe takes his job seriously, but he downplays its importance. “It’s not the toughest job in the world,” he said with a laugh. “I show up at some cocktail parties and pick up balls at practiceThere is more to the job than that. Captains must persuade the top-ranked players, who are invited to the tournament based on their rankings, to participate. They also choose three lower-ranked players, called captain’s picks.“Before the first year, I had to call the players and explain the tournament,” Borg said, although having Federer’s backing made his job easier. For the captain’s picks, he added, “I’m watching so much tennis all year to see who fits the team, who may be in the best shape.”Federer, left, of Team Europe, with Borg, the team captain, at the 2018 Laver Cup.Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesTeam Europe has had a huge edge in singles with its top players, so in past years McEnroe has built his roster around winning the doubles matches, relying heavily on Jack Sock, who is 7-2 in Laver Cup doubles.But without the big three playing for Team Europe, Patrick McEnroe, a vice captain and brother of John McEnroe, said, “we’re not as big an underdog in the singles as we were.”For instance, Denis Shapovalov has a career record of 10-8 against the six Team Europe players. So John McEnroe is aiming for more singles wins, choosing players like Reilly Opelka, who is approaching the Top 20, over Sock, who is an alternate for 2021.Opelka fits the model of McEnroe’s other captain’s picks, John Isner and Nick Kyrgios. “I’m bringing guys in to try and take the racket out of their opponent’s hands,” McEnroe said, referring to players with powerful serves.The week of practice leading up to the tournament serves several purposes for the teams’ leaders. “You need to figure out the doubles partners,” Enqvist said, “so you talk to the guys and try a couple of combinations. It’s important to have good chemistry.”When asked if he could have played doubles alongside Jimmy Connors had the Laver Cup existed in 1980, John McEnroe shrugged. “That would have been iffy,” he said. “I would like to think so, but one year we played Davis Cup together and didn’t talk the whole time.”Patrick McEnroe was amused by the notion. “It would definitely have been worth the price of admission,” he said, “but you’d have to be one strong captain to pull that off.”Reilly Opelka, an American player, in action at the United States Open this month. He will play for Team World at the Laver Cup.Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports, via ReutersThat chemistry goes beyond just doubles partners, Borg said.“We have at least two dinners together to build team spirit,” he said. As for potential conflicts arising from Alexander Zverev’s chastising of Stefanos Tsitsipas for bathroom breaks that he said were too long, Borg said he would be hands off and leave it to his players to work through it.Practical coaching is minimal, John McEnroe said: “The players’ coaches get very protective and call me all the time asking what I am going to do.”Still, he does try, because helping a player make even a slight improvement can make a difference. “I like to help players maximize their potential, and this is one way where they can get feedback from me,” he said. “And it’s not costing them anything.”Both captains submit lineup cards blindly (not knowing who the opponent will be) for the first day, then each gets a turn seeing the other’s lineup first for the next two days. Captains must also weigh the scoring rules: Matches are worth one point the first day, two on the next day and three on the final day.“You want to start strong on Friday, but you might want to save stronger players for Saturday because those are two-point matches,” Enqvist said.Unlike ATP Tour matches, the captains (and the team) are right there on the sideline. “I’m providing a combination of team building, tactics and psychological boosts,” John McEnroe said, though tactics take a back seat. “It’s hard to figure out something that drastic. It’s often basic reminders, but it’s not like I have to tell John Isner, ‘Serve big.’”Mostly it is an enhanced cheerleader’s role. “I give positive vibes,” Borg said.“These players are the best in the world and have played the other guys, so they know what to do and what not to do,” he said. “But if they’re not playing well, I can push them in a positive way.”With the big three replaced by newcomers like Caspar Ruud and Matteo Berrettini, Borg said, “I may be more hands-on and say a few more things this year.”McEnroe said his and Borg’s statures and personas did have an impact.“Even for Roger or Rafa, looking over and seeing Bjorn, they’ll say, ‘I want to make sure I do my thing,’ because Bjorn has an aura around him,” McEnroe said. “I hopefully bring an energy to our side.”Team Europe may be the favorite, but McEnroe has a solution: “I was suggesting that when I grew up, Russia wasn’t considered part of Europe, so we should get [Daniil] Medvedev and [Andrey] Rublev and that would level the playing field.” Medvedev won the United States Open on Sept. 12.In reality, Russia is in Europe and Asia, but the players hail from the European part.“John,” Borg said with a chuckle, “would want all the players.” More

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    John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg: A Rivalry That Ended Too Soon

    The two played each other just 14 times but created one of the greatest and still-talked-about rivalries in the history of tennis.Over the last 17 years, Roger Federer has played Rafael Nadal 40 times, including nine times in Grand Slam finals. He has played Novak Djokovic 50 times since 2006, twice in five-set Wimbledon championship matches, both won by Djokovic. And Nadal and Djokovic have played a staggering 58 times, including nine times at the French Open.By comparison, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe played 14 matches from 1978 to 1981. And yet they produced one of the greatest and still-talked-about rivalries in the history of the sport.Forty years ago, as the setting sun cast shadows across Louis Armstrong Stadium, more than 18,000 spectators saw a bizarre ending to a too-short era that involved two of the game’s all-time best. First, they watched in awe as McEnroe, a native New Yorker, won his third consecutive United States Open by beating Borg 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 in 2 hours 40 minutes. But what happened next caused bewilderment, followed by concern, at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens.As McEnroe was hugging his parents, Kay and John Sr., and holding the champion’s trophy aloft, Borg was nowhere to be found. He had skipped the post-match ceremony and obligatory news conference. He had left the stadium with Lennart Bergelin, his longtime coach and confidant, hastily grabbed a shower and hopped in a waiting station wagon, never again to be seen competing at the U.S. Open, or any other major.McEnroe with Borg during the Laver Cup in 2019. McEnroe was the captain of Team World and Bjorg the captain of Team Europe.Julian Finney/Getty ImagesBorg, barely 25 at the time, was a six-time French Open champion and had also won five consecutive Wimbledon titles from 1976 to 1980 before McEnroe beat him in the 1981 final. Through much of the U.S. Open final he remained close with McEnroe, even leading 4-2 after they had split the first two sets. But when McEnroe broke back and evened the third set, Borg seemed to vanish mentally. He lost the fourth set meekly, shook hands and disappeared.“To me, it was bittersweet,” McEnroe said during a phone interview in August from his home in Malibu, Calif. “The way it ended, with a whimper, with him walking out of the court before the ceremony to never play again. So even though it was a tremendous moment for me, winning Wimbledon and the Open back-to-back and taking over the No. 1 ranking, looking back I wish we could have kept playing.“For years, I would see him and say: ‘When are you coming back? This is ridiculous, let’s go,’” McEnroe, who has long been a tennis commentator for ESPN, added. “It just felt like there was a void and it took me a couple of years to accept that. I think it was too bad for the sport as well.”Borg’s manager, Per Hjertquist, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.What many did not know at the time was that Borg had received two death threats during the Open, both called in to the switchboard at the Tennis Center, though no one has ever said why. One was before his semifinal win over Jimmy Connors. The other was at 4:45 p.m. on Sunday, in the middle of the first set against McEnroe. Borg was not told about that threat until Bergelin alerted him after the match.Many of the fans that day were pulling for Borg, the suave Swede who wore a red, white and blue headband stretched across his forehead to control his shoulder-length mane of dirty-blond hair. Borg was playing in his 10th U.S. Open and fourth final without a championship. He had lost to Jimmy Connors in 1976 and 1978 and to McEnroe in 1980, just two months after beating McEnroe in a five-set Wimbledon final that featured a 34-point fourth-set tiebreaker, and an 8-6 fifth set.Their stark differences were part of the Borg-McEnroe allure. While Borg preferred to quietly stalk the baseline, swinging his two-handed backhand as if it were a pendulum, the left-handed McEnroe was all about disruption, in his game and in his behavior.“We were the perfect yin and yang,” McEnroe said. “You had someone who was naturally aggressive against someone who was a counterpuncher. Everything about us was totally different, the way we looked and the way we played.”Even their fellow competitors saw the value in the matchup.“Bjorn had a certain aloofness to him,” said Rick Meyer, who grew up playing with McEnroe and lost to him in the third round of the 1980 U.S. Open. “He never played doubles, never practiced on site, was basically perfect for the quiet atmosphere of Wimbledon. John, on the other hand, was all about the electricity of New York where people behaved as if it was a boxing match. In the end, that hurt Bjorn.”During the late ’70s and early ’80s, tennis in the United States was exploding. Everyone wanted to play and viewership, in person and on television, was at never-before-seen levels. The day before the 1981 U.S. Open men’s final, 18-year-old Tracy Austin won her second women’s title with a 1-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) win over Martina Navratilova. Navratilova, who had beaten Chris Evert in the semifinals, sobbed, not because she lost but because the New York crowd had finally embraced her six years after she had defected from Czechoslovakia.In March 1981, World Tennis magazine ran a cover photo of Borg and McEnroe, standing back-to-back, revolutionary-style guns pointed up, with the headline “McEnroe-Borg: Will Their Duels Become Legend?”In the months and years after the 1981 U.S. Open, Borg made a few attempts to return to the pro tour. He never played another major, but he captained Team Europe to victory in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 Laver Cup competitions (versus Team World, captained by McEnroe). His son, Leo, has followed in his footsteps and reached the third round of the French Open junior tournament in May and the second round at Junior Wimbledon in July. Borg also started a successful fashion line.“There are a lot of reasons that Borg may have stopped playing, whether it was because he lost the No. 1 ranking, or had been doing it a long time and was a little burned out or that he was the first athlete to make enough money to be able to walk away,” McEnroe said. “But I just wanted to know if he was OK, living a happy life, feeling content and not second-guessing himself and wishing 30 years later that he had done things differently. That’s one of those things that we may never know the answer to.” More