GENEVA, September 20, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
The third edition of the Laver Cup in Geneva picked up where it left off in Chicago last year. While there were no rankings points at stake, amid the electric atmosphere of the sold-out Palexpo, there was plenty of tension exuding on the jet black court and a healthy dose of camaraderie exchanging from the sidelines during Friday’s first day of competition.
One thing’s certain: The players are completely all in – win or lose. And, if Day One was any indication, in which Team Europe jumped out to a 3 points-to-1 lead, there’s plenty of great tennis and drama remaining for everyone to enjoy this weekend. First team to 13 points lifts the 2019 Laver Cup.
Entering Friday’s evening session leveled at 1-all, Team Europe’s Stefanos Tsitsipas maintained his composure just enough during a match tiebreak to give his team a 2-1 lead. Tsitsipas beat Taylor Fritz of Team World, 6-2, 1-6, 10-7, in a battle of 21-year-old Laver Cup rookies who had never faced each other on the ATP Tour.
“If you would tell me 10 years ago that I would be playing an event having Roger and Rafa and four more Top 10 guys by my side, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Tsitsipas said during an on-court interview after his victory. “That’s just magnificent.”
The seventh-ranked Tsitsipas breezed through the opening set in 24 minutes by winning 93 percent of his first-serve points (he finished the match at 78 percent) and broke Fritz twice. Then, the No. 30 Fritz won six of the next seven games, breaking Tsitsipas in the second and sixth games, as he rode his forehand to dominance.
— Laver Cup (@LaverCup) September 20, 2019
Like the opening match of the day between Team Europe’s Dominic Thiem and Denis Shapovalov of Team World, the Tsitsipas-Fritz clash was decided by a match tiebreak. In it, Tsitsipas raced out to a 5-2 advantage, but saw his lead dwindle. However, he capitalized on a major opportunity when Fritz double-faulted at 7-all. Then, Tsitsipas hit an outstanding forehand to gain two match points. He converted on his first one with a big serve and it boosted Team Europe into the lead for the rest of the evening.
Asked why he won the match, Tsitsipas revealed, “I broke my shoelaces at 2-2 and I had to continue. I didn’t want to stop the match. That was quite tough because I was scared I’m going to lose my shoe during the point.
“I think the momentum changed in the third-set (match) tiebreak. I found my rhythm, had a more clear mind on the court, didn’t rush so much. So, I think that played a crucial role in closing it at the end.”
By the end of the match, Fritz admitted he got a little bit tentative, “and I think it became a little bit too much about not losing as, you know, not beating myself instead of me kind of going out there and winning it like I was in the second.
“I wish I would have just gone after my shots, and if I lost that 10-pointer really going after it, then I’d be a bit better.”
Team Europe’s captain, Bjorn Borg, said it’s not easy for anyone to play for the first time in the Laver Cup. “It’s a lot of pressure,” he said.
Following Tsitsipas’ triumph, Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev beat Shapovalov and Jack Sock, 6-3, 7-5, in Day One’s final match. A veteran of three Laver Cups, Sock came into the 2019 competition with a total of 10 points – second only to Federer – and all of them coming in doubles. “For some reason Laver Cup seems to bring the best tennis out of everyone here,” Sock said before the match.
Although surgery to his thumb has curtailed the number of tournaments that Sock has been able to play this season, he came in confident that he would prove to be a worthy captain’s pick. “As a doubles specialist, I trust my abilities out there,” said Sock. But he couldn’t do it alone as he soon found out.
Up a set but trailing 5-4, Zverev served his way out of trouble and saved six set points during a 20-point 10th game marathon. Then, he and Federer won the final two games for the victory to lift Team Europe to a 3-1 lead going into Day Two on Saturday. Federer and Zverev saved 15 of 16 break points they faced against Shapovalov and Sock.
“I had two great coaches, one on the court and one on the sideline telling me what to do every single point,” Zverev said on court afterward in giving props to Federer and Borg. “What’s so perfect was, I could just shut down my brain a little bit and just do whatever they told me. They’re two of the greatest of all time and I’m going to listen to them.”
Federer thanked the crowd for the great atmosphere they helped create. “There’s no place like playing at home, so this is a very special night for me,” said Federer. “Sascha carried me the second set.”
When he was asked during the on-court interview about the condition of his back, which caused him problems during the recent US Open, Federer said, “My back is recovered, I’m fresh and ready to go for more tomorrow.”
Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev speak to the press after their doubles win Friday night, which put #TeamEurope up 3-1
— Laver Cup (@LaverCup) September 20, 2019
Earlier Friday, the afternoon developed nicely for Team Europe as it jumped out to an early lead on the strength of Thiem’s 6-4, 5-7, 13-11 win over Shapovalov. Both of them saved match points before Thiem prevailed 13-11 in a match tiebreak. Then, Sock, who had not won an official singles match since 2018, leveled the tie with a 6-1, 7-6 (3) victory over Fabio Fognini that was as heartfelt as it was impressive in seeing the No. 210 American upset the World No. 11.
“We should have won the first match, so we needed to bounce back,” said Team World captain John McEnroe. “Jack played awesome, he took it to Fabio. He’s a great ball striker. We feel great right now.”
As both afternoon matches proved, the Laver Cup isn’t just entertaining to watch, whether in person or on television. It’s a genuine opportunity for the players to exchange ideas with one another. On numerous occasions during the first day of competition, not only were there plenty of high-fives and fist bumps, there were scenes of Team Europe’s Federer and Rafael Nadal offering advice and perspective from the bench for Thiem and Fognini to absorb.
During the changeover after the ninth game of the second set with Fognini ahead 5-4 and Nadal looking over his shoulder, Federer was caught on camera saying to the Italian, “I want no more negatives. I want you to be only positive. … Believe in a good thing. … Make him hit a great shot.”
Unfortunately, 39 Grand Slams worth of coaching wasn’t enough to get Fognini the victory.
— ATP Tour (@ATP_Tour) September 20, 2019
On the other side, Team World’s Nick Kyrgios, although not playing Friday, was a consistent presence – always up on his feet – leading the cheers. He seemed to care more about the playing careers of his teammates, like Sock, than he does his own. Imagine that!
It prompted Amazon Prime Video’s Mary Carillo to comment, “For someone that resists coaching so much, Nick Kyrgios sure likes doing it.”
After Tsitsipas came through in his Laver Cup debut, a proud Borg put things into perspective during an on-court interview when he said, “They understand it’s very serious, a lot of pressure, a lot of prestige. It’s going to be a long weekend with a lot of tight matches, close matches.”
The Laver Cup has only just begun.
By the numbers
With Dominic Thiem’s win over Denis Shapovalov in Friday’s first match, Team Europe extended its unbeaten run in opening-day singles matches to seven. However, the streak was broken in the next match when Jack Sock upset Fabio Fognini.
What they’re saying
• Roger Federer interviewed by Amazon Prime Video before the start of the night session on Team Europe’s chances: “Dominic Thiem was a good choice to start this edition because he’s a veteran, he’s been at this before, he knows how to handle the nerves. Tonight, we thought Stefanos is a big-match player. He’ll enjoy the atmosphere. I think that’s why he’s going to win this.”
• Todd Woodbridge of Amazon Prime Video to his broadcast partner, Mary Carillo, during the evening session doubles match: “Mary, you played some decent doubles in your day. Slam champion.” Mary: “Yeah, my partner was the captain of Team World (John McEnroe). Let’s put that at the front of this conversation. It was his first major title. Mine too. Except it was also my last.” Carillo and McEnroe teamed to win the 1977 French Open mixed doubles title.
• Alexander Zverev on the energy playing in front of 17,000-plus fans inside the Palexpo: “It’s special, especially since I’m playing with Roger (Federer) and playing in Switzerland. It’s very special. I hope the crowd will be behind us and it’s going to be a great atmosphere.”
What they’re tweeting
Christopher Clarey, New York Times tennis columnist on the crowd’s reception of the players and captains during the team introductions:
“Applause meter for #LaverCup team introductions tonight in Geneva:
2. Nadal, a surprisingly not-so-distant 2nd
5. John McEnroe
6. Everybody else”