The Laver Cup concluded on Sunday at the United Center in Chicago, with Team Europe retaining the trophy after a gripping Day 3 of action that left the schedule one match short.
I’m not sure if I wanted it to be that exciting but, oh man, what a match, what a weekend. Thank you Chicago. Roger Federer
Going into the final day at 7-5 in favour of Europe, Team World took the lead when John Isner and Jack Sock saved two match points and saw off Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev, 4-6 7-6(2) [11-9], in the opening doubles rubber.
It was a crucial win, putting Team World in front 8-7 for the first time in Laver Cup history.
“That was epic, you guys were absolutely amazing, holy cow,” Sock told the crowd. “The first lead in Laver Cup history for Team World, that feels amazing.
“We played the GOAT in our sport and a guy who’s extremely solid in the top five in the world, so I’m not sure how much we were favourites. We kept our heads up all weekend after being down early.”
Asked if his doubles partner could now take down Federer in singles, Sock added: “Hell yeah!”
Federer and Isner were back on court in Match 10 of the three-day competition, fighting for supremacy as the 37-year-old Swiss came from a set down to defeat the big-serving American, 6-7(5) 7-6(6) [10/7] and securing a vital three points to put Europe 10-8 ahead.
Federer had effectively steadied the European ship after he and Zverev had failed to convert their two match points in the opening doubles, and seen the blues’ 7-1 lead dwindle into a one point deficit, handing Team World and their home crowd real belief that they could complete a miraculous fightback.
It was a tall order for Isner, however, who beat Rafael Nadal at the same stage last year, but he stuck to his game plan of big serves and short points, and Federer made little impact as they powered towards a tiebreak.
From an early break down, the American overhauled Federer with a rasping forehand return on set point that sparked pandemonium on the World bench, with Sock and Nick Kyrgios – both wearing Chicago Bulls jerseys – charging up to celebrate with Isner.
A sweeping forehand down the line and a backhand arrowed cross-court gave Federer the first two break points of the match at 3-3 in the second, but Isner slammed the door shut with some un-returnable serves.
Unable to get the breakthrough, Federer was increasingly vulnerable as the set progressed, and Isner almost capitalised when the Swiss first served to stay in the match.
Two blistering winners brought up match point but the American sent a loose forehand long and they headed into a second tiebreak, with a potential 10-point match tiebreak beyond that.
In a thrilling passage of play, Isner earned another two match points at 6-4, only for Federer to find an ace and then rip a spectacular backhand winner, after which the Swiss levelled with another ace.
World had now squandered 6 match points across the 3 days in Chicago, and Federer made sure Europe took advantage once again, taking control from 5-5 in the decider, and earning his first match points at 9-6.
Isner saw off the first with a deft volley but Federer clinched it with a forehand after almost 2 hours of gripping tension, and the Team Europe bench finally challenged their World rivals in the celebration stakes with a display of team press-ups.
Asked if this kind of match was what he had envisioned at the Laver Cup, Federer joked: “I’m not sure if I wanted it to be that exciting but, oh man, what a match, what a weekend. Thank you Chicago.
“Regardless of what happens it’s been a successful week, and weekend, we’ve loved it. I couldn’t be more excited for what’s to come now.
“The good thing is we could lose the next one, so that takes the pressure off.”
The win was testimony to Federer’s remarkable physical conditioning as the 20-time Grand Slam singles champion outlasted Isner less than an hour after he had been beaten in the day’s opening doubles.
Federer, the World No 2, celebrated the win by joining the push-ups with his team-mates to the delight of the crowd.
And so it came down to Match 11, pitching Zverev, ranked five in the world, against giant Kevin Anderson, who had so crucially beaten Novak Djokovic, the current Wimbledon and US Open champion, on Saturday to turn around the fortunes of Team World.
The German saw a couple of early break-point chances disappear, while Anderson racked up 6 opportunities without making the breakthrough.
Tiebreaks were always likely to be necessary, and it was the South African who grabbed the initiative in the opener, surging into a 6-2 lead and converting his second set point with a heavy backhand.
Watched by a critical Federer from the sidelines, the young German was being bullied by the 6’10” Anderson, who was searching of his first ever win over Zverev and using his huge serve and volley to great effect.
There are no rules about coaching here, with both team-mates and captains offering advice to their combatants at will, so Federer moved in on the changeover to offer some sage counsel.
“Find your return position, but then once the rally gets going, you have to remind yourself to keep your position or move forward – but stop moving back and back and back,” the 20-time Grand Slam champion said.
“That’s why he’s able to get to these volleys, because he has too much time, he gets that metre or two too close to the net, or you give him that one more split second of time to just get his legs in position to run around.
“So, if you can be closer on the baseline, he won’t have that time. That’s my opinion. Because you slice, and you run back.
“So just stay in position, because then you can also see the short balls. Back there you don’t have any short balls, so it’s hard to stay offensive.”
It was to prove a decisive pep talk as, on serve at 5-4 in the second at the time, Zverev won the set 7-5, breaking Anderson just a few minutes later.
Zverev continued putting Federer’s advice into practice to close it out in the match tiebreak, 6-7(3) 7-5 [10-7], and seal a 13-8 victory for Europe, sparking wild scenes as the blue bench emptied of players racing to celebrate on court.
“I’m just happy to get the win and we defended the title,” the 21-year-old said after the match.
“Roger is not a good coach… but we will leave that,” he joked. “No, he helped me a lot. He gave me some tactical advice and it worked because I won the second set and then the match tie-break.
“It was such a close match all around, not only this one but all weekend – a few points here and there and it could have been different.”
Commenting on the earlier doubles loss, Zverev said: “I felt like everything that we did was my mistake,” laughing. “Roger does a double fault, it’s kind of my fault. I try to keep up with him.
“It was a great experience, unfortunately we lost the match, but it all worked out for us in the end.”
Zverev’s win gave Team Europe an unassailable 13-8 lead over Team World, so the final match of the day was not played, sparing Djokovic a deciding singles rubber against Australia’s Nick Kyrgios, the Serbian US open champion having lost his first two matches of the competition on Friday and Saturday.
Team World had come desperately close to forcing the deciding match, which was a remarkable effort after they had fallen 7-1 behind following Saturday’s afternoon session.
The European team was led by Swedish tennis legend Bjorn Borg, who said: “It’s been an unbelievable week.
“This is actually my favourite week of the year. I’m very proud of my team, we knew it’s going to be very difficult to beat Team World with John as the captain. He has a great team, they’re very professional.
Team Europe won the inaugural tournament in Prague last year.
Team World captain John McEnroe said: “I’d just like to congratulate Team Europe. It was a great effort, great match, unbelievably exciting.
“This team, I’m so proud of these guys, it is awesome to be a captain for Team World.
“We have got great camaraderie and, dammit, we’re going to win this one next year!”
Debutant Kyle Edmund won his only game on Friday against Jack Sock, while fellow first-timers Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin won their singles matches on Day 1 but lost as a doubles pair to Nick Kyrgios and Jack Sock on Saturday.
“We have so much fun together,” added Borg. “I mean, that’s very important.
“Outside the court, you have to laugh and to get the feeling together, to get that team spirit. When we are on the court, we are very serious. We know what to do. Everybody’s involved with the matches.
“You know, next year in Geneva, Switzerland, they are not going to take the Cup from us. I’m telling you. We are going to keep the Cup, believe me.”
The Laver Cup may only be two years old and lacking in historic tradition, and it doesn’t offer a single ranking point, and yet, after its emergence in Prague last year, it prompted jittery Davis Cup officials to scrap the competition’s 118-year-old format and has attracted the world’s best.
The USTA and Tennis Australia have reportedly invested millions in it, and the Chicago edition proved to be magical, celebrated at the United Center by sellout crowds of 17,500 and filling the arena five times in three days.
Almost 90,000 fans left the ‘greatest show in tennis’ knowing that the Laver Cup was far more than an exhibition event.
Djokovic called it ‘a perfect dream for tennis’ while McEnroe hoped ‘we, in tennis, don’t screw it up’.
Tennis historian and author Richard Evans addressed all the cynics, noting: “The Davis Cup wasn’t popular when it first emerged in 1900.
“In sixty years of covering various sports, I cannot think of a new concept leaping out of the starting blocks with the instant success of the Laver Cup.
“Huge sell-out crowds on two continents, top stars loving every moment; history highlighted; contests going down to the wire, kids inspired. Amazing.”
That the Laver Cup is here to stay, and that it has much it can teach the rest of the sport, there is no doubt.
“I think having a legend, Bjorn Borg, sitting on the bench and having Roger and the other guys supporting you after every single point, standing up and cheering you on, and having John McEnroe on the opposite bench, you know, it’s quite unique,” Djokovic said.
It appears that the success of the event has tempted him to play in the competition again in the future.
“I have experienced a lot and I have been really blessed to play this sport in high levels for so many years,” added Djokovic.
“But to talk with Roger about different things related to tennis, life, family, football, and the other guys just joking around and dancing to Grigor’s music, enjoying Kyle’s singing and following Jeremy everywhere he goes, yeah, it was a lot of fun.
“I really hope that we can have another chance to get together.”
Next year’s competition will take place in Geneva from 20-22 September, and the players and the fans can’t wait.