Last year, I worked out a forecast of the event, walking through a variety of ways in which captains Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe could use their rosters and ultimately predicting a 16-8 win for Team Europe. As it happened, both captains intelligently deployed their stars, and the result was 15-9. This year, the competitors are a little different and the home court has moved from Prague to Chicago, but the format remains the same.
Let’s start with a look at the rosters. I’ve included two additional players for reference: Juan Martin del Potro, scheduled to play for Team World, but withdrew; and Pierre Hugues Herbert, the doubles specialist Borg hasn’t realized he needs. Each player is shown alongside his surface-weighted singles Elo rating and surface-weighted doubles “D-Lo” rating:
* Federer has played very little tour-level doubles for a long time. Last year I estimated his D-Lo at 1650; he played rather well last year, so I’ll bump him up to 1700 this time around.
Especially with Delpo on the sidelines, Europe looks to dominate the singles. The doubles leans in World’s favor, largely because Jack Sockis so good, especially in comparison with guys who have focused on singles.
Let’s do a quick refresher on the format. Laver Cup takes place over three days, each of which has three singles matches and one doubles match. Each player must play singles at least once, and no doubles pairing can repeat itself. Day 1 matches are worth one point each, day 2 matches are worth 2 points each, and day 3 matches are worth 3 points each. If there’s a 12-12 tie at the end of day 3, a single doubles set–in which a previously-used team may compete–will decide it all.
Given that format, the best way for the captains to use their rosters is to stick their three worst singles players on day 1 duty, then use their best three on both day 2 and day 3. For doubles, they should use their best doubles player every day, with the best partner on day 3, next best on day 2, and third best on day 1. As I’ve mentioned, Borg and McEnroe came close to this last year, although Borg didn’t use Rafael Nadal (his best doubles player) in day 3 doubles, and he generally overused Tomas Berdych. Both decisions are understandable, as Nadal may not have been physically able to play every possible match, and Berdych was in front of a Czech crowd.
Now that we know the captains will act in a reasonably savvy way, we can forecast the second edition with a little more confidence than the inaugural one.
Nadal’s absence this year will hurt the Europe squad on both singles and doubles. Combined with a small step backward for Federer’s singles game, this year’s Laver Cup figures to be closer than last year. Recall that my forecast a year ago called for a 16-8 Europe victory, and the result was 15-9.
Assuming optimal usage, the 2018 forecast gives Europe a 67.6% chance of winning, with a most likely final score of 14-10. There’s a nearly one-in-ten shot that we’ll see a 12-12 tie, in which the superior doubles capabilities of Team World give them the edge, with a 70.7% probability of winning the tie-breaking set.
Were del Potro not so fragile, this could get even more interesting. Swap out Frances Tiafoe for the Tower of Tandil, and Europe’s chances fall to 56.8%, with a most likely final score of 13-11.
Nothing McEnroe could have done, short of going to medical school a few decades ago, could have put the Argentine on his team this week. But Borg has less of an excuse for failing to maximize the potential of his team. Unlike World, with its world-beating doubles specialist, Europe has a stunning singles roster that rarely takes to the doubles court. As we’ve seen, one doubles player can take the court three times, plus the potential 12-12 tie-breaking set. The specialist would need to play singles only once, on the low-leverage first day.
The obvious choice is Pierre Hugues Herbert, a top-five doubles player with the ability to play respectable singles as well. The Frenchman would be considerably more valuable than Kyle Edmund, who is a better singles player, but not good enough to be of much help to an already loaded side. (I made a similar point last year and illustrated it with Herbert’s partner, Nicolas Mahut. Since then, Herbert has taken the lead over his Mahut in both singles and doubles Elo ratings.)
When we sub in Herbert for Edmund, the simulation spits out the best result yet for Europe. Against the actual World team (that is, no Delpo), the hypothetical Europe squad would have a 74.6% chance of winning, with the likely final score between 14-10 and 15-9. Herbert and a mediocre partner would still be the underdogs in a tie-breaking final set against Sock and John Isner, but the presence of a legitimate doubles threat would narrow the odds to about 58/42.
We won’t get to see either Delpo or Herbert in Chicago this year, but we can expect a slightly more competitive Laver Cup than last year. Add in home court advantage, and the result is even less of a foregone conclusion. It’s no match for last week’s Davis Cup World Group play-offs, but I suspect it’ll make for more compelling viewing this weekend than the final rounds in Metz and St. Petersburg.