39 Grand Slams, Two Legends, One Goal Of Winning Laver Cup

Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev at Laver Cup (photo: Eva Matan)

GENEVA, September 21, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)

On Friday at the Laver Cup, when they weren’t getting in teammate Fabio Fognini’s ear, urging him to put aside negative thoughts while providing some insightful coaching advice, Team Europe’s Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal sat together on the team bench like “two pensioners that have decided to go to a cricket match and reminisce about their lives for a few hours,” according to one seasoned tennis observer.

However, on Saturday before another sellout crowd at Geneva’s electric Palexpo, when it was – at last – their time to shine under the spotlight beaming down on the jet black court, they both triumphed. Federer and Nadal were locked in and focused from first ball to last ball.

With two points for each victory at stake on Day Two, both Federer and Nadal rose to the occasion, lifting Team Europe to a 7-5 lead, needing just two victories on Sunday (when they are worth three points) to retain the Laver Cup. Team World will need to win three of the four scheduled matches on the final day. (The first team to score 13 points wins the Laver Cup trophy.)

After World No. 3 Federer raised the Palexpo roof with his thrilling 6-7 (5), 7-5, 10-7 victory over 27th-ranked Nick Kyrgios that ended the afternoon session with Team Europe ahead 5 points to 3, it was Nadal’s turn to dazzle in front of 17,000 fans and a world-wide television audience of millions during the evening session.

The second-ranked Nadal took on Milos Raonic, ranked 24th, who was making his Laver Cup debut. Although it had been two years removed since they met at the 2017 Australian Open, in which Nadal garnered his seventh win against the Canadian, both arrived a bit banged up. Raonic missed the US Open and hadn’t played since the Rogers Cup last month while Nadal came into this weekend with a bandaged left wrist.

While Raonic hoped that his big serve coupled with the fast surface and quick format could prove difficult for Nadal, the Spaniard knew that if he replicated his in-form performance from the US Open, where he won his 19th Grand Slam singles title, it likely would turn this match into a tutorial on what makes Nadal the fierce competitor he is. And that’s exactly what the Spaniard did in beating Raonic, 6-3, 7-6 (1).

Although Raonic unleashed 13 aces and won 80 percent (32 of 40) of his first-serve points, Nadal saved eight of the nine break points he faced and converted three of six break-point opportunities against the Canadian. He outpointed Raonic 78-69. Once Nadal got started, any rustiness from being inactive since winning the US Open disappeared, and he elevated the level of his play by the end of the two-hour and six-minute match.

During his on-court interview afterward, Nadal, who improved his Laver Cup record to 3-2 with his victory, thanked the crowd for it’s “unreal” support. He said, “I feel very lucky in the first set. An unlucky set for him, I think he deserved it that’s for sure.

“Later in the match, I started to play better with a higher percentage on the serve and start moving myself a little bit better.

I think in the end I played a very good tiebreak with some good shots, so very happy to help Team Europe to be 7-3 – it’s great news for us.”

Team World win doubles 

In Saturday evening’s final match, Nadal returned shortly after his singles victory and teamed with Stefanos Tsitsipas against Team World’s Kyrgios and Jack Sock, unbeaten in two previous Laver Cup doubles outings. Kyrgios and Sock held off Nadal and Tsitsipas during a match tiebreak and won 6-4, 3-6, 10-6 for their third Laver Cup victory together. It closed Team Europe’s lead to 7 points to 5 over Team World.

“There was a lot on the line there. Obviously, we wanted to keep the overall weekend close,” Sock said afterward during an on-court interview. “Being down 9-3 is a lot different than being 7–5. We’ve had so many chances it’s been crazy. The score could easily be the other way.

“We came out with a lot of energy like we always do when we play doubles. I thought we gelled together really well tonight. We’re definitely happy with the win and keeping it close.”

Isner beats Zverev

Earlier Saturday, Team World’s John Isner scored a 6-7 (2), 6-4, 10-1 come-from-behind victory over Alexander Zverev of Team Europe that leveled the tie at 3 points each after his team began the day trailing 3-1.

After Zverev won the opening set on a tiebreaker, thanks to winning 20 of 21 points behind his first serve, Isner was two games from going down to defeat in the following set. However, he broke Zverev to go ahead 5-4 and served it out. Then, he dominated the match tiebreak and rode the momentum to victory.

“For 85 percent of the match, Sascha was, in my opinion, the better player,” Isner said during his post-match press conference. “I was just holding serve and I was making no inroads on his serve. That was clear to see.

“Finally, I had a little bit of a chance at 4-all and I definitely got lucky, not doubt about that, to break.

“From there, I had a lot of momentum. That freed me up, because I was tight and I couldn’t get free. … Once I was able to win that second set 6-4, I felt great. I did feel like I had the momentum, and I think that showed.”

Later, during his press conference, Federer was asked about the advice that Nadal gave him during some of his match’s difficult moments, such as when he trailed 4-5 in the second set against Kyrgios, and if it helped.

“Well, absolutely. Look at the result (smiling). We did it, you know.

“I really enjoy his clarity in his advice. It reminded me very much … the match was extremely similar to the one in Prague against Nick.

“It was a struggle from the baseline trying to find the right balance of how aggressive to play and … what I really enjoy with Rafa is just that we very often align, our ideas align. And obviously, when it comes to rally points, he’s excellent. You know, he knows how much is enough and how much is too much.

“He’s a great problem/solution-finder, how to get through that. I found it quite impressive in the doubles when I played with him, how he’s constantly looking for a new way to win or stay on a certain track if he feels that winning or – I think that is the true reason why he is the champion he is today, because he’s not scared of changing a winning tactic, and he’s also a big believer in investing. You, know, and I do similar things, so it’s very enjoyable to hear him speak, especially during the game.”

By the numbers

• With his win over Nick Kyrgios, Roger Federer remained unbeaten in Laver Cup singles matches with a 5-0 record. He beat Kyrgios in dramatic fashion, 4-6, 7-6 (6), 11-9, to clinch the inaugural Laver Cup in Prague in 2017 for Team Europe.

• During their doubles loss on Friday, Team World’s Jack Sock and Denis Shapovalov only managed to convert one of the 16 break points they earned against Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev.

“Roger came close to not being a human in this match,” said Sock after his team lost 6-3, 7-5.

What they’re saying

• Roger Federer on the ability to advise and coach his Team Europe teammates: “I think it ended up being one of the secrets of the Laver Cup, you know, what it’s also maybe fans tune in to see and hear what we have to say. We don’t do it for that reason that they get that insight. It just happened to be that way.

“If you ask anybody on our team, we can’t control ourselves not saying anything and then live with regret. So, we have to go out, say it, and if it doesn’t work, so be it. If it does, we feel a little better.”

Dominic Thiem of Team Europe on the atmosphere inside Palexpo during Friday’s team introductions: “The atmosphere and the emotions were outstanding. It was really unbelievable.

“Honestly, I never heard something louder in my life than when Roger entered the court before the match. Was unbelievable. Then the atmosphere in the match was also great.”

• Nick Kyrgios, on the interaction he displayed with Team World captain John McEnroe and with teammates like fellow Australian Jordan Thompson, during his match against Roger Federer: “I see Jordan on the bench, a guy I have grown up with, I have known since I was eight, and then be sitting next to someone that I can relate to and I feel understands me in John and he knows the game so well. And, then, to see my buddies on the bench and guys I’m playing for, you know, representing the World.

“I don’t think there is much more you can play for. I feel like this is the ultimate event. You’re playing for Europe and playing for the rest of the World. I’m just out there trying to do what’s best for my team. If that’s me watching them play, standing out there for practice, I’m going to do whatever they need.

“If my best bet is to go up against Federer every time, then I will do that and I will try my best to win, and I will do everything I absolutely can.

“Today, I can up short, but I just love the team environment. I think it’s much more enjoyable.”