AFTER TWO DAYS IN GENEVA, LAVER CUP, UNIQUE APPROACH ALREADY A WINNER
GENEVA—The Laver Cup continues to astonish and amuse.
Now in its third edition in Geneva, following unheralded success in Prague and Chicago, Roger Federer’s brainchild delivered what the capacity crowd of 17,500 had come to see: the game’s most storied stars playing competitive tennis in a unique format.
By the end of the second day of play, Team Europe, with Bjorn Borg in the captain’s chair, was leading John McEnroe’s Team World by 7 points to 5.
John Isner’s impressive 6-7, 6-4, 10-1 win over Alexander Zverev, and a thriller of a doubles match to round off the day's play—Jack Sock and Nick Kyrgios overcame an early deficit in the super tiebreaker against Rafael Nadal and Stefanos Tsitsipas to win 6-4, 3-6, 10-6—put the underdogs within striking distance.
With each match counting for three points on Sunday, Europe are still in the driver's seat, but they will need two more wins to keep hold of the Laver Cup.
By then we had witnessed one of those moments that has made the Laver Cup different and appealing.
In Prague we had Federer and Nadal leaping into each other’s arms after winning a doubles, the first time they had ever played on the same side of the net.
Here, amidst the cacophony of the huge Palexpo Arena, we witnessed another first. Fabio Fognini, struggling to deal with power play of a rejuvenated Jack Sock, found himself getting the kind of super charged coaching that no other player has ever been subjected to.
The little Italian had Nadal in one ear, Federer in the other, while the stoic and silent Borg stood in front of him.
No matter how good the advice was, it turned out to be overkill. Fognini lost the first set 6-1, and then the second 7-6, as he made a better, if ultimately futile, attempt at sorting out whatever he was being told by the game’s two greatest players.
A day earlier, it was the star-studded combination of Zverev and Federer who prevailed. (Getty Images)
Meanwhile, Sock was able to make better use of McEnroe’s coaching as he completed what, amazingly, was the American’s very first singles victory of the year.
With the first rubber going Europe’s way, as Dominic Thiem survived three match points before beating Denis Shapovalov 12-10 in the third-set super tiebreak.
Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Taylor Fritz by the strange score of 6-2, 1-6, 10-7, the score was 2-1 before Federer and Zverev extended Europe’s advantage by beating Sock and Shapovalov in the fourth rubber.
Second-day matches count for two points each, part of a clever way to ensure that the Cup cannot be decided until Sunday, and play inevitably focused on Federer’s duel with Kyrgios. It could have sold out the stadium out three times over if there had been space.
Feeling the pressure of playing in front of a Swiss crowd in an event he had helped create, Federer struggled to compete with the mercurial Australian early on and lost the first set in a tiebreak. But some great service returns enabled him to force a break at the end of the second.
Kyrgios, enjoying the team format and conscious of the legend across the net, had been on his best behavior throughout, and it seemed he might get rewarded when he won the first two points of the super tiebreaker.
He was certainly playing well enough. But no matter his age or the circumstances, Federer still has it in him to change the course of a match and, in the space of three brilliantly played points, he did so here.
One will stick in the memory. Kyrgios flashed a high forehand service return crosscourt and Federer reached it in mid court, way over to his forehand side.
Almost caught off balance, he took the ball on the full, driving a volley straight down the line for a winner.
The reaction of the crowd will, Roger said afterwards, go down as one of the loudest he will remember.
There had been one in Bogota, Colombia when he was playing an exhibition which he admitted had scared him because the noise was so loud, and this one was of similar velocity.
“I mean, I had goosebumps during that game,” he said. “I can’t deny that. I’m not immune to it. I don’t take these moments for granted.
You know, if I would have retired a long time ago, I wouldn’t have had this moment right now today, so it was worth it.”
After three years, Federer is unbeaten in Laver Cup singles matches. (Getty Images)
It’s what they play for—the stars from any field of public endeavor, the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd.
And, yes, in answer to the cynics who still insist the Laver Cup is little more than an exhibition because it doesn’t carry ATP points (although it is now an official part of the ATP Tour calendar) Federer, speaking at his press conference, accepted it as “a legitimate question.”
The gist of his answer centered on the fact that Prague and Chicago had proved something that he had been a little concerned about before the first ball was hit in 2017.
“What surprised me was the camaraderie that we have on the bench. I thought it was going to be hard to keep the boys out there, that they would all want to do their own thing, that the team thing was going to be more forced.
But everybody is super happy to spend time together.
"But I didn’t worry too much about the quality of tennis because if you put a top player in front of that big a crowd, you’re not going to be just playing hit and giggle and clowning around.
You have people like me, you have people like John and Bjorn there reminding them please try to play your best tennis?
And Rod Laver is watching? You want to impress. I was not too concerned.”
Rafa, coached by Roger. (Getty Images)
What impressed Federer most was Rafa’s coaching ability. The Spaniard was over Roger’s shoulder at changeovers and Federer appreciated ‘the clarity of his advice.”
He found that often their ideas aligned.
“Obviously when it comes to rally points, he’s excellent.
He knows how much is enough and how much is too much. He’s a great problem/solution finder. He’s constantly looking for a new way to win or stay on a certain track.
"That’s the true reason he is the champion he is today because he’s not scared of changing a winning tactic.
You know, I do similar things, so it’s very enjoyable to hear him speak.”
No question it is enjoyable for the crowd to see these champions at work. For the third straight time of asking, the formula is proving to a be a success right out of the blocks.
Already, the Laver Cup can claim to be one of the quickest success stories in sport.