On Day 3 of the Laver Cup, Team World clung on, bringing the climax to the inaugural team competition to a thrilling end, eventually conceding the trophy match to Team Europe, 15-9, after a great fightback.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had teamed up for the first time to help Europe extend their lead to 9-3 on Saturday night, when the pair outlasted and outclassed Americans Sam Querrey and Jack Sock to win, 6-4 1-6 [10-5], in the weekend’s headline match.
Team World’s hopes, however, had been kept alive by Nick Kyrgios, who pulled out a win against Tomas Berdych that always looked to be going Europe’s way.
It was therefore fitting that it would fall to Kyrgios to determine the fate of the Laver Cup at the last.
For all the pride and competitive spirit that exists at the inaugural Laver Cup, it is also a showcase of tennis unity and, as rivals become teammates, new friendships were forged.
Kyrgios thrived in the group setting and after he teamed up with Jack Sock to claim Team World’s first point in doubles on Day 1, he said: “Events like this are perfect, because you create friendships, and if you win an event like this, then you’re never going to forget about that. You have amazing memories.”
Even captains Björn Borg and John McEnroe are friends these days.
“We’re great friends,” confirmed McEnroe earlier in the week. “We’re still in touch. We don’t see each other as much as I would like. He lives in Stockholm, I live in New York.
“We’re not playing any more against each other, which we obviously used to do a lot more of. We haven’t seen each other as much recently as I’d like.”
Borg was happy to redress that balance in Prague: “To see him on the other side, it’s a special feeling. I mean, I’m happy I’m captain of Europe, and I’m sure he’s very proud to be the captain of the rest of the world.”
I played extremely well… easy to play in front of this crowd, and the No 1 in the world. I had nothing to lose! We are still alive, let’s get it going! John Isner
Going into the final day on Sunday saw Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych from Team Europe take on Jack Sock and John Isner in the opening doubles match.
The early matches were critical for Team World, with each worth three points on Day 3, meaning they could quickly close the gap if they could pull off a strong start.
To win the Laver Cup, a team had to reach 13 points.
On Saturday night, captain Borg submitted his players for the final day, so McEnroe had until Sunday morning to determine who he would pit against the Team Europe players.
While the scoreline looked stark for McEnroe, each match had been close and all but one had gone to a deciding tiebreak thus far.
After the opening doubles, Alexander Zverev and Querrey faced each other for the first time in their careers.
Nadal was scheduled play against Isner in Match 11, with the Spaniard player leading head to head meetings by 6-0.
The final match of the day was to be between Federer and Kyrgios.
The 19-time Grand Slam champion won the match they played this year in the Miami semi-finals in the third set tiebreak, while Kyrgios had beaten him in 2015 Madrid.
While four matches were on the schedule, under Laver Cup rules, in the event that two or more are required on the final day to decide the winner, no further matches will be played.
This piece of information, however, was to become redundant.
The doubles, therefore, was crucial to keep Team World’s diminishing hopes alive and it was not a match to disappoint, full of exciting, breath-taking tennis that, in the end, went their way to keep them in the race.
On his 25th birthday, Sock proved he can dominate with his partner, Isner, and together they edged out the victors over Europe’s Berdych and Cilic, 7-6(5) 7-6(6) in a tense encounter in Prague’s O2 Arena.
Team World took a first-set lead on the tiebreak and it was an equally close clash in the second.
The American’s took the early break for a 4-2 lead, only to surrender their own serve as the match eventually headed to another tense and thrilling tiebreak.
Team World secured their first mini-break through Sock’s dynamic play for 3-1, but their opponents hit back to level for 3-all.
Isner served to keep his team in the set and held, and they then went 7-6 up when Berdych netted on match point.
It kept Team World’s Laver Cup hopes alive, taking the overall tally to 9-6 for Team Europe.
“To share a court with a really good friend today is extra special,” Sock said after the match.
When asked what instructions he had from Team World Captain John McEnroe, Isner said: “Hold my serve and let Jack do the rest.
“Jack is the best doubles player in the world hands down, we’re very lucky to have him on our team.”
Following the doubles, Europe’s Zverev took on the World’s Querrey in their first-ever encounter, and, with points worth three matches on Sunday, a victory for the American in the Match 10 singles would even out the leaderboard, keeping the Laver Cup live.
He was banking on the younger man’s inexperience but the German showed what a rare talent he is, as he produced a nerveless display of all-court tennis to take the rubber in straight sets, 6-4 6-4, and extend Europe’s lead to 12-6.
The youngest member of Borg’s squad was a class apart as he claimed his second win of the weekend that restored Team Europe’s six-point cushion and needing just one more point to win the Laver Cup, with two matches remaining.
Zverev never looked in trouble as the American struggled to apply the pressure, and he was quickly in the zone, ripping a string of sumptuous backhands and punishing the Querrey second serve.
The 20-year-old snatched the break for a 4-3 lead before serving out the opener to love inside half an hour, then he broke to love to put Team Europe firmly in control, looking every part the World No 4.
McEnroe needed a response from Querrey, and he rallied to push Zverev to deuce before looking far more solid on serve, but the damage was already done and a solitary break point was all the German needed to clinch a dominant win, sealed with a service winner after 62 minutes.
It came down to Isner, his back to the wire, to deliver a special performance against the World No 1, Nadal, to keep Team World alive, and so he did.
He came out of the blocks, all guns blazing, clearly energised by his early doubles outing, and broke Nadal in his opening service game.
The first set then went with serve until 5-4 when the pair exchanged breaks before Isner served out the set to love.
His booming serve kept him in the second, too, as Nadal upped his game and inched them towards the tiebreak.
The Spaniard faltered briefly in the ninth game, drifting a forehand wide and playing conservatively, then netting a short ball to face break point but he steadied with two fine first serves to push ahead.
Isner was on a mission, slamming down his serves to hold to love and level, keeping up the pressure.
Nadal responded in kind to go up 6-5 and, after another hold to love by Isner, they were in the set tiebreak with a roar from the crowd.
An incredible opening point, in which Nadal displayed his extraordinary powers of his defence, went Isner’s way, as he held his nerve for the mini break.
When Nadal pushed his backhand wide and faced another ace, he was already 0-3 down.
A lucky net cord forced Isner to strike long but the American tempted Nadal into a long forehand to go up 4-1 and then a wide serve took him to 5-1.
They changed ends and Isner served his 11th ace for match point, which he converted with a fine volley,
He threw down his racket in triumph and stared at his bench, where his teammates were ecstatic.
“I played extremely well… easy to play in front of this crowd, and the No 1 in the world. I had nothing to lose!” the hero of the day said. “We are still alive, let’s get it going!”
It was Isner’s first win over the World No 1 in 7 meetings and the victory gave Team World a real chance at levelling the competition in the final singles match when Federer took on Kyrgios.
The leaderboard stood at 12-9, with three last points up for grabs.
A win by Team World would tie the matches and a set of doubles with a super tiebreak would determine the outcome, while victory for Team Europe would finally secure them the Laver Cup.
All to play for then, in the last scheduled match of the day, a credit to the Laver Cup’s unique scoring system.
If anybody thought this was just for the money, forget it! The crowd were in for a real thrill as both players laid it out there.
Kyrgios scored first blood, breaking Federer early and hanging on to his lead, precariously at times as the Swiss threw everything at him to recover the deficit.
The long seventh game had it all, with both players covering the court with amazing speed and producing an array of shots that had the crowd gasping and screaming with delight.
Federer served to stay in the set at 3-5 down, struggling behind his serve but when, at deuce, the Aussie attacked the net, he calmly passed him, crisis over.
Wearing black leg warmers, Kyrgios is a comical figure on the court, and he set about serving for the set but made three unforced errors to give Federer two chances to break back at 15-40.
The first he saved with an ace, and the second, Federer pushed out with his forehand.
Kyrgios stormed the net on the next point as the Swiss ballooned his response over the baseline and the Aussie made no mistake on set point, grinning widely at his bench as he pocketed it 7-5 and McEnroe gave him the thumbs up.
Judging from the massive roar from Federer as he broke to go up 3-1 in the second, this was every bit as important as a Grand Slam challenge.
His somewhat subdued bench of teammates (compared to the ever vocal Team World) punched their fists in approval.
Serving to consolidate the break, the Swiss narrowly missed a couple of volleys and was eventually flummoxed by a wonderful variation of shots from Kyrgios, who broke back at his first chance.
Kyrgios had his IT band worked on in the sit-down, watched by his captain as they chatted about the Aussie’s strategy.
Back on serve, Kyrgios upped a gear to combat Federer’s silky smoothness, and fired his first delivery three times to level at 3-all.
Federer held firm and both made it to the tiebreak where the chips were down on which the Laver Cup hinged.
Kyrgios blinked first, serving a double by a mile allowing Federer to go up 2-1, and the Swiss held his own two serves for 4-1, with another mighty ‘come on!’
The Aussie responded well, as did Federer who garnered three sets points, the first of which Kyrgios saved with a sweet angled volley, then an ace, and then caught the Swiss in a rare tentative moment with a magnificent winner.
Federer held for 7-6, with both teams roaring along with the crowd.
He made no mistake on the next set point on the Aussie serve, weaving his way past the incoming volleyer to snag the set and force the 10-point match tiebreak.
It was now down to the wire.
With Nadal screaming ‘come on’ at him from the sidelines, Federer regrouped to face the decider.
A double fault did not help his cause, but he held firm on his next delivery, 1-3 down.
A poor volley from Kyrgios handed back the advantage but another double fault by Federer showed the tension he was suffering and, after changing ends, he fluffed his backhand into the net to allow the Aussie a 5-2 lead, which he converted to 6-3.
Federer clawed back his next two serves to narrow the gap to 6-5 in Kyrgios’ favour, after which the Aussie held firm again for 8-5.
He challenged his backhand down the line but knew it was out, and was unable to make his next one as Federer crept nearer.
Serving for the match, Kyrgios drove into the net for the Swiss to level, as Nadal shrieked from the sidelines, pumping up the crowd.
The next point was full of tension and determination and the Aussie earned himself a match point, but he sent his forehand long, offering up a reprieve.
Kyrgios dumped his backhand return into the net, and Federer needed no further invitation to win through, 4-6 6-7(6) [11-9], for Team Europe to get their hands on the Laver Cup trophy by the narrowest of margins.
Nadal was first onto the court to celebrate with him, followed by the rest of the team, all showing the passion they felt for winning the event, 15-9.
“I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “I was ready to go, the boys played fantastic all weekend and we knew it could all change on Sunday. I’m just relieved to get it done. We were getting ready for the doubles!”
The trophy ceremony, of course, featured the great legend himself, Rod Laver, plus the Presidents of both Tennis Australia and the USTA, a significant statement for a ‘mere exhibition event’.
For sure, the Laver Cup is going to be around for a good long time.
Next year it will take place at the United Center, one of the largest arenas in the USA with a capacity of 23,500, from 21-23 September, 2018.
Tony Godsick, President and CEO of TEAM8, said he was excited to bring the Laver Cup to the United States.
“On behalf of our partners Tennis Australia, USTA, and Jorge Paulo Lemann, it’s my honour to announce that we are bringing this special event to the great sports city of Chicago and the amazing tennis fans of the American midwest,” Godsick said.
“We had discussions with a number of US cities eager to hold the second Laver Cup, but in the end, Chicago was the clear choice.
“Chicago has not hosted a major tennis event in more than 25 years,” Godsick added. “We are going to make sure their wait was worth it.”
Adams said: “We couldn’t be more thrilled coming off an incredibly successful inaugural Laver Cup to be hosting this event in the United States next year.
“It’s personally thrilling for the Laver Cup to be coming to my home town of Chicago. To be associated with the legacy of the United Center and working with their team will allow us to showcase this event and attract more players to our sport for a lifetime.”
It’s certainly been a thrill for us all, first time round.