Big John Isner was determined to level things at the Laver Cup when he stepped onto court in Chicago on Saturday, Day 2 of the Team Europe versus Team World competition.
I felt good from the beginning of the match and that's not usual Roger Federer
After dominating Friday’s opening day, winning three out of the four matches, Europe’s progress looked to be checked after Isner grabbed the first set against Alexander Zverev, dominating the young German.
The 21-year old dug deep, however, encouraged by his team-mates on the bench, and showed great determination in saving a match point at 6-5 down in the second-set tiebreak to level the contest.
Zverev then raced into the lead in the 10-point match tiebreak before closing out for the win against the tall American, 3-6 7-6(6) [10-7], and taking Team Europe 5-1 up in the overall points standings.
On Day 2 match wins are worth 2 points apiece, while on Sunday, they are 3 points each up for grabs so a comeback is always possible and, with the winning team needing 13 points in total to carry off the Laver Cup trophy, an exciting finish assured.
Later Isner bristled when asked how serious the Laver Cup is: “I think you guys can see for yourself how serious it is out there,” he said. “The word ‘exhibition’ is so stupid when it comes to talking about this event. It’s the furthest thing from that.
“I mean, I’m totally dejected right now. Look at Sascha. He went down to his knees after winning that match. It’s not a show. If it is, we’re incredible actors, okay?”
Hopes for a Team World recovery were further dampened when World No 2 Roger Federer barely ruffled a feather as he cruised to a comfortable 6-3 6-2 win over Nick Kyrgios.
“I felt good from the beginning of the match and that’s not usual,” said Federer, resplendent in European blue. “Usually you need matches to get going and play your best in the third round or quarters of a tournament.
“Today I was very clear in my game plan, and I got wonderful support from my team.”
Federer broke Kyrgios early in both sets in front of an electric crowd in Chicago, and although there were flashes of brilliance from the young Australian, he was no match for Federer as the Swiss extended his record against Kyrgios to 4-1 since they first met in Madrid in 2015.
Kyrgios bought his high-impact style to the showdown, and did manage to produce the occasional flash of brilliance, but he was basically outcassed over two sets by the 37-year-old.
There was also drama with the officials, and fireworks when Team World Captain John McEnroe jumped into the fray.
In the second set, with Kyrgios down 1-3 and defending a break-point, Hawkeye overruled a line umpire who had called the Australian’s serve out.
Instead of being awarded the ace, the chair umpire determined the point be replayed, explaining that Federer had had a minimal chance of returning the ball and could have been put off by the call, which set Kyrgios off.
“You are delusional,” Kyrgios fumed, before McEnroe joined in. It didn’t change a thing.
The point was replayed and a furious Kyrgios was broken again.
With Federer’s win and Zverev’s epic three-set defeat of Isner, Team Europe took a commanding 7-1 lead and were looking good for a second Laver Cup victory, but there were major surprises in store.
Just as Team World’s belief seemed to be wavering, 6’ 10″ Kevin Anderson, who had a dismal 1-6 record against Novak Djokovic, the hottest player in the tennis universe, stepped up to the plate.
Djokovic handily dismissed the South African in this year’s Wimbledon final, and Anderson had not beaten the Serb in a decade.
Nevertheless, Anderson showed great power, surprising quickness and a gritty fighting spirit as he prevailed in the deciding tiebreak 10-6 to claim a desperately needed victory that kept Team World in the Laver Cup conversation.
Then the American-Aussie win by doubles wizard Jack Sock and Krygios over David Goffin and Grigor Dimitrov brought Team World back into contention, going into the final day of the Laver Cup just 7-5 down with all to play for.
It was Anderson, however, who got the fight-back started by upsetting the reigning Wimbledon and US Open champ, 7-6(5) 5-7 [10-6], to earn two crucial points for Team World.
The United Center felt like a home court for the man from Johannesburg, his two-and-a-half years at the University of Illinois making him a local favourite.
“We’ve had some really close matches [that] haven’t gone our way and I really wanted to put us back in there,” he said. “It’s not easy playing one of the best players of all time, but what an amazing atmosphere.
“It’s just fantastic, for so many reasons. I felt I played a great match – beating Novak on any stage is great and here in Chicago makes it extra special.”
After early breaks of serve were exchanged, the match came alive in the first set tiebreak, Anderson sneaking it when Djokovic surprisingly double faulted on the first set point.
The World No 3 set about rectifying matters early in the second, but break points came and went as Anderson repeatedly found big serves at crucial moments, drawing a rueful smile from Djokovic.
The crowd grew more vocal, as did the players on the two team benches, cheering their respective men on.
It was Djokovic who made the breakthrough, his relentless accuracy finally cracking the Anderson defence for a break at 6-5, and moments later he clinched the set.
For the fourth time in Chicago a 10-point match tiebreak was required, and for the first time it was Team World who prevailed.
Anderson made his move with a huge cross-court winner for a 6-4 lead before the crucial moment came when Djokovic unexpectedly missed a mid-court forehand to fall 8-5 down.
Team World had failed to convert match points in two matches on Day 1, and the nerves jangled when another went begging thanks to a solid Djokovic serve, but Anderson closed it out when the Serb fired a forehand into the net and the South African was swamped by a red tide of relieved teammates.
“Kevin was so well prepared for this, we needed this bad,” said Team World Captain McEnroe. “It was absolutely awesome.”
McEnroe needed a positive response in the evening session and he got just that as first Anderson stunned Djokovic in singles, before the electric combination of Sock and Kyrgios sealed a 6-3 6-4 victory in the doubles over Goffin and Dimitrov.
The American-Australian pair had spent much of the day rallying their team-mates from the sidelines and they carried that energy onto court, celebrating and chest-bumping at every opportunity.
Dimitrov and Goffin might have produced less fireworks but the Bulgarian-Belgian duo were almost as effective in the early stages, earning 5 break points in the opening set without being able to make the breakthrough.
A fierce Sock forehand clinched the only break of the set for 3-1 and the red pair defended their lead with some brilliance around the net, plus the odd moment of luck, Kyrgios celebrating wildly after one net cord went his way.
A fightback was required in the second set after Sock double-faulted on break point, but the World team hit straight back and then moved ahead at 4-3, sparking a Kyrgios chest-bumping spree with everyone on the Team World bench.
It fell to the Australian to serve it out and, after a nervy double fault on the opening point, a sublime Sock volley brought up match point, which Kyrgios converted with a heavy forehand that Goffin could only net.
“It helps that Kevin won, that’s for sure,” said Sock. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities this weekend and had some heartbreaking losses, so for Kevin to bring out a huge win like that just brought out more energy for us.”
“It’s my favourite event,” Kyrgios told the crowd. “I knew it was going to be awesome playing in front of you and Team World is going to come out tomorrow and take the Cup, for sure.”
The schedule of matches for Sunday is:
Match 9, Doubles: Roger Federer & Alexander Zverev v John Isner & Jack Sock
Match 10, Singles: Roger Federer v John Isner
Match 11, Singles: Alexander Zverev v Kevin Anderson
Match 12, Singles: Novak Djokovic v Nick Kyrgios
Team World have the chance to take the lead for the first time at Laver Cup 2018 when Sock and Isner open the final day of action against Federer and Zverev in the doubles.
With three points available for a win on Day 3, Europe will need two victories from Sunday’s four matches and World must find three wins to pass the 13 point-mark that will secure the Laver Cup trophy.
“I’m feeling a little bit better now than I was a few hours ago,” Team World Vice Captain Patrick McEnroe said. “When I walked out I felt like tonight was the night, the guys were really committed and they were going to give everything out there. We like our chances going into Day 3.”
The winner could be decided in Sunday’s second match when both Federer and Isner make an immediate return to court for the first of the singles.
Should the contest still be alive, Zverev will take on Anderson in Match 11 before a potential Laver Cup decider between Djokovic and Kyrgios in Match 12.