London | Djokovic puts Team Europe in control

Roger Federer spent the first day of his retirement present beside a tennis court, watching on from the side-lines at the 2022 Laver Cup as Novak Djokovic entered the contest and appeared to change it decisively in favour of Team Europe. Djokovic majestically won back-to-back matches in singles and doubles to open up an 8-4 lead over Team World.

If Roger Federer is telling you to do something, there is no chance I’m not going to do it, especially out there playing for Team Europe. Matteo Berrettini

Playing competitively for the first time since triumphing at Wimbledon two and a half months ago, Djokovic looked superbly fit and sharp in defeating Frances Tiafoe 6-1 6-3 in just 72-minutes. Tiafoe had reached the semi-finals at the recent US Open in Djokovic’s absence due to his continuing refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19, but on this occasion the American was overwhelmed by his more experienced opponent.

And Djokovic maintained his high-performance level as he then combined with Matteo Berrettini to beat Alex de Minaur and Jack Sock 7-5 6-2 in one- hour 21-minutes, ensuring that Team Europe would take a crucial advantage into the final day of the Laver Cup. This was all the more notable since the rest of the world side had specifically targeted the doubles in their strategy for this weekend.

John McEnroe, the Team World captain, had selected Sock as a doubles specialist, and the move was rewarded when Sock and Tiafoe overcame the emotion of Federer’s farewell as well as his on-court partnership with Rafael Nadal in the first doubles on the opening evening. But, on the second night of the Laver Cup, Bjorn Borg, the Team Europe captain, played his Djoker card and upset the plan.

The results were additionally significant for Djokovic as they provided his first victories in the competition, after losing both his singles and doubles on his only previous appearance in the event in Chicago in 2018. He showed the benefits of his extended break from tennis this summer, looking refreshed and in great physical condition, especially considering that he is now 35-years-old.

The last of this year’s Laver Cup participants to get on court, Djokovic imposed himself very early on against the in-form Tiafoe. In an arena where he won four of his five ATP Finals titles, Djokovic did not lose a single point on his serve in taking the first set in only 23-minutes, and he secured 7 games in succession to move a set and a break up, establishing an advantage which he was never going to relinquish.

Confirming that he was seeing the ball very well and with a great feeling as it came off his racket, Djokovic proceeded to spoil Sock’s 30th birthday with a second straight-sets victory of the evening. To complete consecutive successes in 2 sets – and thereby avoid a “Laver breaker” – was made even more impressive by the fact that, preceding it, 5 of the first 6 rubbers had been decided by a match tie-break.

The most evenly-balanced Laver Cup to date had been level overnight at 2-2, and it remained tied after the initial 2 matches on Saturday. The 2 afternoon singles were shared, despite contrasting approaches by the two sides. Team Europe put in their two alternates, with Berrettini replacing Federer, and Cameron Norrie coming in for Nadal, who had to return home to his pregnant wife.

Felix Auger-Aliassime and Matteo Berrettini pose for a photograph ahead of their match

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images for Laver Cup

Team World conversely played their two top-ranked players, Taylor Fritz and Felix Auger-Aliassime. The latter lost to Berrettini 7-6(11) 4-6 10-7 in two-hours 16-minutes, even though he did not drop his serve throughout a duel in which the only break came on the Italian’s serve early in the second set. Berrettini just prevailed in two close tie-breaks, as he held his nerve better than his Canadian opponent was able to.

Norrie recovered from a poor start to extend his contest with Fritz into a match tie-break, but could not quite complete the comeback, with Team World’s number 1 player coming out on top 6-1 4-6 10-8 in one-hour 27-minutes. It was to prove the rest of the world side’s solitary success of the day, but the way in which Norrie got back into it was an early credit to the courtside influence that Federer can have.

The Swiss superstar seemingly relished an unofficial new role as a non-playing vice-captain for Team Europe, assisting Borg in his captaincy and the remaining players to varying degrees in their matches, repeatedly offering advice and cheerleading, as his continuing presence in the European team line-up helped to avoid any anti-climax at the O2 Arena after the celebrations of his career the previous night.

The biggest roars of recognition from another capacity crowd of around 17,500 were inevitably reserved for Federer, but he also justified his place on the team benches with the encouragement and guidance he gave, acknowledged by Berrettini when he equalled Djokovic in recording two wins on the day, and especially aiding Norrie when the British number 1 really needed it.

“At one point, Roger was, like, ‘Yeah, it’s a good play to serve/volley’. I actually serve/volleyed, and I had the play, and I just didn’t quite execute the volley. I looked over at him, and he was laughing and smiling. He was happy that I actually did it. If Roger Federer is telling you to do something, there is no chance I’m not going to do it, especially out there playing for Team Europe.”

Cameron Norrie came in as a replacement for Rafa Nadal

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images for Laver Cup

And Norrie added: “To be walking onto court with him right next to me, it’s pretty surreal honestly, with all those boys in the corner supporting me. I never thought I would be in this position with this team. What I experienced the last night was truly special, and it was crazy… all the emotions… and even seeing Rafa tearing up… everyone didn’t get that much sleep last night in general. It was cool to be a part of it all.”

He summed up the experience saying: “It was pretty crazy, honestly. I really enjoyed it. It was just a shame I then came out pretty flat when I had to play.” Norrie also confirmed that he had been told in advance about potentially stepping in as a substitute at this Laver Cup, and he was delighted to do it: “I knew obviously what was going on in this current situation, especially with Roger and Rafa, so I knew there was a good chance.

“First of all, I was just honoured to be a part of this team, and I felt like I really deserved to be a part of this team, and to be among these guys. I earned it from what I have done in the last 2 years. It was a huge honour to get the call and the selection, so I was just really happy to be a part of it. I have been really enjoying it, as well.

“I knew there was a good chance for me to play, so I was all in. And I was going to be practising here in London anyway, so it was perfect timing. It was great to get that call, and great to make my debut and actually step on the court and fight for Team Europe. It’s one of the coolest events that I have ever been a part of, especially this year.”

“Credit to Taylor (Fritz), he started well, and he was hitting the ball huge. But, after the first set, I really enjoyed the match, and the whole experience of it. Having these guys in your corner, giving you advice, and embracing that, was just a lot of fun. I really loved it. It’s very special to be a part of this team specifically, and this group of guys have been wonderful off the court, on the court.

“It’s been great for me to practice with them as a whole. It was disappointing not to get the win, but it was a tough match, decided in the end by a couple of balls, and I had a couple of chances. It’s disappointing, but it’s been a lot of fun.”

Norrie accepts that he will need to work on the slow starts which have affected him lately, admitting: “It’s something that I need to change. You know, I can’t be donating my serve… I think it’s something, especially at my level against these guys, it’s something that I shouldn’t be doing, and there is no real reason for that. Especially as I don’t think I could be any more confident with my year and my results this year.

“You know, I think there are only a couple of players, or a handful of players, that have won more matches, or played more matches than me this year. There is no reason I should play a loose game to start and then have these flat starts, but the good news is I’m always finding a way into the match, and I’m always giving myself the best chance.

“Especially against guys ranked above Taylor, I want to be knocking on the door and trying to get further up in the rankings. Guys I’m trying to beat, like Novak and Stefanos and Casper, they always play very complete matches on their serve. I can’t afford to do that and have a slow start or play a loose game here and there against those guys, especially with my game style.”



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