Auger-Aliassime, Tiafoe Lift Team World To First Laver Cup Triumph

Team World, 2022 Laver Cup champions (photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images for Laver Cup)

LONDON/WASHINGTON, September 26, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Frances Tiafoe saved four match points against Stefanos Tsitsipas during his 1-6, 7-6 (11), 10-8 win and helped clinch the 2022 Laver Cup title for Team World with a 13-8 victory over Team Europe in London Sunday evening.

Team World began the final day trailing Team Europe 8-4 and needed to garner three matches to capture the Laver Cup for the first time in the five-year history of the event. With each win worth three points, Team World had a monumental task ahead, but it pulled off a miracle finish.

Once Tsitsipas netted a forehand return to end the final contest after an hour and 46 minutes, which capped the three-day competition, the 24-year-old Tiafoe dropped his tennis racquet and fell to his back on the O2 Arena’s distinctive charcoal black Centre Court. Soon, his Team World teammates piled atop him, mobbing their hero in celebration. Then, after Tiafoe got back on his feet, he could be seen cupping a hand to his ear, asking cheering fans for more noise. He gestured to his chest and yelled out, “I’m him, I’m him!”

Indeed, Tiafoe, who on Friday teamed with Jack Sock to score a valuable point in doubles with a victory over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, had become a “Prime Time” player, rising to the big occasion. All of this came just a few weeks after the American mounted  a semifinal run at the US Open, which lifted him to a career-high Top-20 ranking of World No. 19.

“It is an unbelievable feeling,” Tiafoe said during his on-court interview. “Our captain Jonny Mac [John McEnroe] was tired of losing … saying we needed to get it done this year on his fifth try. All week, leading up I kept saying this was our year. The guys showed up. Felix beat Novak, Jack and Felix also played unbelievable doubles. We all did it together, it wasn’t just me. I showed a lot of heart to get this one. This is big. We are going to celebrate big tonight.”

Later, Tiafoe said during his team’s press conference: “When it becomes a circus out here, and I’m just using the crowd and acting like a little kid and having a bunch of reactions … I end up playing really well and I start building momentum off it. I’m able to play and function in that better than my opponents, it seems.”

Tiafoe was part of a young but talented Team World squad who had 66 fewer Grand Slam singles titles than Team Europe, which in addition to Federer and Nadal also included Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. In the end, it didn’t matter. Tiafoe said he would not apologize to Federer for beating the Swiss star in his final ATP Tour event or beating Team Europe to win the Laver Cup.

“I’m not going to apologize to him. He’s got a lot to apologize for after the last 24 years – after beating everybody on the tour,” Tiafoe said. “I will say thank you for having me in this amazing event, what he’s done for the game. He’s a class act. Happy to know him, happy to call him a friend, happy to call him a colleague, and best wishes in his second act. But I will not apologize.”

Certainly, Team World had nothing to apologize for after beating Team Europe for the first time in five attempts to lift their first Laver Cup trophy. They received their prize during an on-court ceremony from Hall of Fame great Rod Laver, the event’s namesake, who sat in the front row throughout the entire weekend.

“I don’t want to talk too much because I want the party to begin very soon,” Team World captain John McEnroe expressed during the trophy presentation. “They brought the energy, belief and intensity. I want to especially thank my brother Patrick, my right-hand mind.”

Later, during the Team World press conference, McEnroe suggested his team’s battling spirit was the difference this year between winning and losing. “The format is a format that things can change in a hurry. Jack [Sock] has been awesome for us. You could see how close it was, the doubles,” he said.

“Felix, I’ve got to say, stepped up big time. Thank you so much for that. That was awesome. But there was a great team spirit. So, we were battling from the beginning. I think we felt that it is the ‘Big Four’, but obviously the circumstances are a little different than they could have been 10 years ago, five years ago. So, we knew we had a shot at it, but it was an uphill battle. Thank god World won.”

Despite losing to Team World for the first time, Team Europe captain Bjorn Borg said that he was proud of his team’s efforts this week.

“For me, it was very special to have this team, this great team,” Borg said during his team’s press conference. “Of course, right now we are a little disappointed because we lost, but the tennis has been great, good matches, close matches. But to have the ‘Big Four’, and they are different from the younger generation, the players here, it’s been fantastic. Roger here, one of the greats, retiring from tennis, stepped away, an we are all a little bit sad about that.

“But we had a good time. Of course, we wanted to win. I mean, that’s why we are here. It’s a great event. Players like it. We were here to try to defend our title but we didn’t. They had a good three days. This time, they were better than us. But we will definitely be back.”

Auger-Aliassime, Sock gave Team World hope to build upon

As Sunday unfolded, Team World kept its hopes alive by winning the opening doubles match. It was worth three points and narrowed Team Europe’s lead to 8-7 with three matches remaining. Felix Auger-Aliassime and Jack Sock edged Team Europe’s Matteo Berrettini and Andy Murray, 2-6, 6-3, 10-8, in an hour and 37 minutes of entertaining tennis to give their team a life line.

Sock delivered on match point during the 10-point match tie-break with a deftly-tapped backhand volley winner at the net. It contrasted with his team’s earlier difficulties in the opening set. The just-turned 30-year-old American contributed four points for Team World in this year’s Laver Cup and it was his ninth lifetime doubles victory in 12 Laver Cup doubles matches. This year, he had a different partner in each of his three matches: Frances Tiafoe, Alex de Minaur and Auger-Aliassime.

“As Frances would say, there was a little cocoa butter on the final volley,” Sock said in his on-court interview. When Sock was asked by interviewer Samantha Smith what, if any, advice Team World team captain John McEnroe gave him, he said: “You better … win.”

Felix fired up Team World in a match to remember

With the Canadian-American duo’s triumph, it gave Auger-Aliassime confidence going into his singles match against Team Europe’s Djokovic, appearing in his first event since winning Wimbledon but also favoring his right wrist. After falling behind 2-0 early, Auger-Aliassime righted himself nicely and won seven of the next eight games. He found himself with a one-set lead after taking the opener 6-3.

Auger-Aliassime continued to play aggressively throughout his one-hour and 35-minute tussle against the former World No. 1 and gave his team a 10-8 lead after beating Djokovic, 6-3, 7-6 (3). The 22-year-old Montreal native struck 13 aces, won 81 percent of his first-serve points and converted three of five break points on the low-bouncing hard-court surface at O2 Arena. He outpointed the Serbian 72-57.

“It was one of my best performances of my career,” Auger-Aliassime told interviewer Tim Henman during his on-court interview. “I’ve been close a few times and in recent times to win against these great champions. So, it feels great to get the win. Especially in front of the fans in this arena and for Team World.”

Tiafoe rose to the occasion with Laver Cup outcome in the balance

World No. 13 Auger-Aliassime, the second-highest ranked player on Team World behind 12th-ranked American Taylor Fritz, played a massive role in putting his team on top, needing just one more victory to secure the Laver Cup.

Soon, Tiafoe would come up huge at the biggest moment despite being outplayed statistically by Tsitsipas. It took surviving a 20-minute, 24-point, second set tie-break, which Tiafoe won on his third set point with a dazzling side-spun backhand volley, just to set up a third-set match tie-break. In the end, Tiafoe ultimately prevailed and the celebration was on for Team World.

The American from Hyattsville, Md. was outpointed 81-63 and did not have any break-point opportunities against the Greek star. However, Tiafoe did produce 25 winners against 15 unforced errors and took advantage of 13 unforced errors by Tsitsipas, including on Laver Cup match point.

“It’s been an amazing weekend,” Auger-Aliassime said in press. “We were down yesterday night, but we came today with a big belief, and Jack and I got the job done in doubles. It was an important one. I was just trying to step up to the challenge. I will try to use that as confidence for the future.”

Laver Cup notes

Both Team World captain John McEnroe and Team Europe captain Bjorn Borg indicated during their respective news conferences that they each plan to return for Laver Cup 2023, which will take place at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, from September 22-24.

The Rocket tweets his congratulations to Team World

“Quotable …”

“I like playing in those events feeling I can bring something not only to myself but to the team. I feel like it pushes me also to stay positive, to dig deep, that feeling that I’m not only playing for myself.”

Felix Auger-Aliassime of Team World on what helps him do well in team events.

“I’ve been struggling with my right wrist for the last 4-5 days, to be honest. I have been keeping it under control.

“The two matches yesterday (Saturday) probably had an effect. Today was not easy. I couldn’t serve as fast or as accurately as I would like to. That has affected the whole game. He was serving extremely well.

“Of course, I’m not taking anything away from his performance. It was outstanding, big serving, and very solid from back of the court. You know, he deserved to win, no doubt.”

Novak Djokovic of Team Europe, discussing his injured right wrist, following his loss to Felix Auger-Aliassime Sunday. The Laver Cup was Djokovic’s first competition since winning Wimbledon in July.

“I definitely really enjoy playing in big stadiums and big moments. I think I have always played some really good tennis in those situations.

“You know, you just rise to the occasion. I think today is why you put in the time and work hard, show your game when everyone is there watching, millions of people watching.”

Frances Tiafoe of Team World, after he and Jack Sock defeated Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on Friday. Tiafoe won the clinching match Sunday over Stefanos Tsitsipas to give Team World its first Laver Cup title.

“Of course, I am disappointed. I was on the team and my hands hurt from clapping. I wish the result was different. I told Andy [Murray] in the locker room that I don’t like losing, it’s not fun.”

Roger Federer of Team Europe, who ended his 24-year pro career after winning 103 tour-level titles and 20 majors.