GENEVA, September 22, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
The dynamics of the final day at the Laver Cup in Geneva changed hour by hour. First, with the withdrawal of Team Europe’s Rafael Nadal due to a wrist injury, then with Team World’s match tiebreak doubles win by John Isner and Jack Sock over Roger Federer and Stefanos Tsitsipas that lifted them to an 8-7 lead, and, finally, with the sudden withdrawal of Nick Kyrgios from the Team World lineup.
What twists and turns could possible happen next?
How about Team World finding itself one win from its first Laver Cup victory after unheralded Taylor Fritz came in as a replacement to beat World No. 5 Dominic Thiem. The 30th-ranked American rallied for a 7-5, 6-7 (3), 10-5 win that pushed his team to an 11 points-to-7 lead over Team Europe.
With three points for each win on Sunday, Isner finds himself in position to secure the Laver Cup for Team World, but he’ll have to do it against the 20-time Grand Slam champion Federer.
“We’ve been battling ever since this Laver Cup started,” said Team World captain John McEnroe. “Expect the unexpected. Here we are now, one more and we got this thing.”
Originally, Team Europe captain Bjorn Borg called upon a formidable replacement in Thiem to face the No. 27 Kyrgios in the second match of the day on Sunday and the first of a possible three singles showdowns. However, after the conclusion of doubles, which Team World’s Isner and Sock won over Team Europe’s Federer and Stefanos Tsitsipas, 5-7, 6-4, 10-8, McEnroe dropped a bombshell by announcing that Kyrgios was not fit to play because of a sore shoulder. He would be replaced by Fritz, who lost his opening match on Friday against Tsitsipas, 6-2, 1-6, 10-7.
While Kyrgios was expected to be fired up against Nadal – and presumably would have maintained the same level of intensity against Thiem – we’ll never know. Instead, Kyrgios would be relegated to a supporting role as a Team World cheerleader on the bench and several times came up to Fritz to offer sound advice and perspective.
“We wanted him to come out and go 100 percent and he didn’t feel like he could,” McEnroe told Amazon Prime Video’s Mary Carillo during a court side chat while Fritz and Thiem warmed up. “So, that means we’ve got to put someone else in. You can’t play the same guy, so that limited our options.”
It meant that the 21-year-old Fritz would be thrown into the spotlight against Thiem, bringing an 0-2 lifetime record against the Austrian. It meant that Thiem, 26, would get coaching advice from Nadal in English and from Federer in German. What could go wrong?
“The bottom line is we’ve got a couple of guys (Fritz and Thiem) who can play tennis. This is is a big match obviously. John (Isner), for example, we would have potentially played him back to back and he was starting to play incredible (in the doubles), and Milos (Raonic) has a good record against Dominic. We don’t have this opportunity.
“We’re going to hope for the best. We need to win two matches. That’s the bottom line. We got the one we needed. This is exciting. I love being part of it. I’m proud to be a part of it.
“This is a huge opportunity for Taylor. Both of these young guys are juiced up. They both played well in their first matches.”
As it happened, Fritz won the opening set 7-5 on his fifth set-point try with a backhand winner that culminated an 11-minute, 12-point game. While the margins were tight and Fritz scored just two more points during the set, Thiem was unable to converted any of the six break-point opportunities he had against the young American.
With no breaks of serve, the second set was decided by a tie-break, which Thiem won 7-3, hitting a forehand winner that brought the sold out Palexpo crowd to its feet. It set up a match tiebreak.
During the match tiebreak, Thiem went ahead 2-0, but Fritz leveled it with a forehand winner and an unforced error. Then, Fritz went ahead when Thiem hit a backhand lob long, and increased his lead to 4-2 with another forehand winner that stopped Thiem in his tracks. Another forehand winner – his ninth of the match – made it 5-2 for Fritz, who broke out a smile for one of the first times during the tension-filled tilt.
Later, ahead 6-3, Fritz increased his lead with another forehand winner that caught the line. On a roll, Fritz was brilliant in hitting an overhead winner to further his lead at 8-3. Thiem broke the momentum with a pair of points on a couple of unforced errors by Fritz, but the American rallied to gain a match point when Thiem hit a long return. Finally, Fritz won the match with one last forehand winner.
Immediately, Fritz emphatically raised his hands in jubilant celebration and soon was swarmed by his Team World teammates and McEnroe, too.
— Laver Cup (@LaverCup) September 22, 2019
“We really needed that win,” said a relieved Fritz during his on-court interview. “To come back today and contribute to the team and give my team a win meant everything to me.
“Now we’re four points in the lead, one match from the win. It was so crucial.
“This is one of the biggest wins of my career. It means so much more when you’re playing for other people as well.”
The victory lifted Team World to an 11-7 lead, needing to win just one more match.
What they’re saying
Rafael Nadal on helping to “coach” and offer advice to his Team Europe teammates: “I like this sport in general, so I like to play, and I like to support from outside. People who follow sport knows that I normally, when I do the things, I try to do it with the highest intensity possible.
“So, if I’m here, I’m not here just to play tennis. I’m here to help the team in all the ways. … It’s good to be around a great team, and I am enjoying.”