Team Europe got off to a flying start by bagging 3 of the 4 available points on the opening day of the Laver Cup in Geneva on Friday.
We are very happy with 3-1, I tell you that Roger Federer
Dominic Thiem won a dramatic match tiebreak against Team World’s Denis Shapovalov to claim the defending champions first point in the packed Palexpo arena.
Three match points slipped by for Shapovalov as Team World once again suffered an agonising first day, 6-4 5-7 [13-11].
“I guess Denis and me continued where the Laver Cup last year stopped,” said Thiem.
“It’s a really special thing with the tiebreak in the third, it creates lots of close moments and match points on either side. It’s also a little bit of luck at the end.”
The Austrian, ranked 28 places higher at No 5 in the world, needed one break of serve in the first set before Shapovalov fought back to take the second.
The Canadian made the early move in the 10-point tiebreak but a whipped forehand down the line brought Thiem back on serve.
Shapovalov appeared to have done enough when a burst of quality brought him 2 match points at 9-7, but a framed backhand and a forehand winner from Thiem squared it at 9-9.
Match points then went begging for both players before Thiem made the decisive move at 11-11, dominating the next two rallies and securing victory when Shapovalov netted a forehand.
“I knew before it’s going to be a great competition,” said Europe captain Bjorn Borg.
“I can’t imagine this is only the first match – we started like this, with many more to come. Dominic played well and did a great effort to win this match.”
In the second match, American Jack Sock proved again that Laver Cup brings out the best in him as he beat Fabio Fognini to level proceedings and become the first Team World player ever to win an opening-day singles match, coming through, 6-1 7-6(3).
“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.”
Sock had impressed in the first two editions of Laver Cup, racking up a total of 10 points, second only to Roger Federer, but all of them in doubles.
Ranked a lowly 210 in singles after an injury disrupted year, Sock made it onto the 2019 team as a captain’s pick, with McEnroe looking for more from him in the doubles.
A huge outsider against singles World No 11 Fognini, Sock stunned the Palexpo crowd, and the watching Team Europe bench, as he broke serve twice to take the first set.
Fognini simply could not find his form, letting 6 break points slip by and making 15 unforced errors in a wayward opening set.
There were supportive words from teammates Federer and Rafael Nadal early in the second but the Italian looked nonplussed, and failed to make the breakthrough as the set headed to a tiebreak.
The Swiss even urged Fognini ‘to stop with negativity’ at one point, something the Italian was unable to manage.
“It’s not extra pressure,” said Fognini.
“If somebody like [Federer and Nadal] and Bjorn [Borg, captain] close to me say something, I have to open my ear and just listen.
“I mean, it’s not happening like every week that I have this kind of possibility to try to understand people that they made — I mean, how you say, the legend of our sport.
“I’m lucky. I’m lucky to be here.”
Federer conceded that this attempt at court-side support had fallen short.
“Bad coaching,” said the 20-time Grand Slam champion.
“It’s that simple. Terrible coaching before, during, and after. Maybe we said the right things afterwards, you know, to cheer him up again. But everything that led to the performance didn’t work.
Again it was Sock who took the initiative, breaking for a 3-2 lead after attacking the net before Fognini handed him 3 break points with a double fault.
The Italian could only fire a backhand long on the first to spark wild celebrations from the American and the red bench.
“It’s been a long road back,” said Sock.
“I’m sure everybody here is surprised I won a singles match. I had thumb surgery in February and was out for almost six months.
“For some reason Laver Cup seems to bring the best tennis out of everyone here.
“I’ve played great singles before, so I know it’s in me, but it’s an amazing feeling to bring it out today playing for these guys, not just myself.”
With a point apiece, Stefanos Tsitsipas stepped up to nose Europe ahead in the final singles match of the opening day, triumphing over Taylor Fritz, 6-2 1-6 [10-7] in a thrilling contest.
Tsitsipas was cheered by his European teammates, including Nadal, who had strapping on his left hand.
After his US Open final win over Daniil Medvedev, the Spaniard told the reporters that he was very tired and took a week off,
but appears not to have fully recovered physically as yet and may be doubtful heading into his first match in Geneva where he could face Canadian Milos Raonic on Saturday night.
Nadal could also play both singles and doubles on Sunday, which would be a major test for his body.
“Let’s see tomorrow how things go”, said Nadal on Friday. “After New York, the body always feels down a little bit. Some issues can happen but here I am. I’m trying hard to be ready for when the team need me.
“Let’s see. All of the matches are very difficult. If I am not at 100 per cent, there is another player. But I am confident I can help.”
Heading into the first doubles match of the competition leading 2-1, Europe extended their advantage as two of their heavyweights, Federer and Alexander Zverev held off a fight back from Sock and Shapovalov.
Europe might have been vulnerable on serve but they were the more clinical, a lone break giving them the first set and a fizzing forehand return from Zverev edging them ahead early in the second.
They withstood heavy pressure, Federer picking a superb volley off his shoelaces as they denied World a break point for the 9th time, but a blistering Shapovalov return levelled things at 4-4.
The momentum was now well and truly with Team World and they pushed the Zverev serve to the limit at 5-4, only for the German to dig in and fend off 6 set points.
It was a huge blow to those in red, and almost inevitably they gave up the crucial break in the next game with a Shapovalov double fault.
Federer was not about to let the chance pass him by and he served out for a memorable win, punching his fist in celebration and embracing Zverev.
“I had two great coaches, one on the court and one of the sideline telling me what to do every point,” said Zverev, who was helped by both Federer and Nadal.
“It was perfect. I could shut down my brain a little bit and do what they told me.
“They’re the two greatest of all time and I’m going to listen to them.”
Europe extends its unbeaten run in opening-day singles matches to 7 and takes an early 3-1 lead in the race to the 13 points that will secure victory on Sunday.
“We are very happy with 3-1, I tell you that,” admitted Federer with a smile.
He also spoke about the Laver Cup choosing the now famous black court to play the event on.
“The black court is the centrepiece of a really cool, contemporary look over all that is such a big part of how people identify with the Laver Cup,” he said.
“The whole arena is dramatic, with the lighting, the screens around the court, the team colours and benches — all innovations that haven’t ever really been a part of tennis before.
“As a player, it’s fun to mix things up and compete in a very different atmosphere to our usual weeks on the tour.
“And I hope that what we’ve done with the Laver Cup, by doing things a bit differently and with a 21st-century outlook, will help bring new fans to tennis”.
McEnroe, Team World’s captain said: “It looks cool. I was taken aback a little bit at first, but I think the players are into it.
“It seems like a win. It’s something different. It’s got a quality to it you don’t see. There’s an intensity to it. It favours bigger players. John Isner was dangerous the first couple years we played. So was Kevin Anderson.
“Big guys sometimes like it a little slower because usually the ball bounces up higher. They don’t react quite as quickly as these superstars like Roger, Rafa [Nadal] and Novak [Djokovic], who rely on their athleticism.”.
John Isner said: “It’s going to be interesting. It’s an extremely nice court. It will be a little bit different to get used to the optics of the black court, but I think after one or two days on practice, it will seem to all of us just like any other court”.
Order of Play for Saturday
1pm: Alexander Zverev v John Isner
Fb: Roger Federer v Nick Kyrgios
7pm: Rafael Nadal v Milos Raonic
Fb: Nadal & Stefanos Tsitsipas v Kyrgios & Jack Sock