The odds are heavily stacked against Team World in the inaugural Laver Cup being held this weekend at Prague’s O2 Arena.
Their top ranked player is Sam Query, No 16, while Team Europe is fielding the current best two players in the world, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
These two old hands head a team that includes three players who are also in the top 10: Alexander Zverev at No 4, Marin Cilic at No 5 and Dominic Thiem at No 7, plus local hero Tomas Berdych, ranked at No 19.
Team World are the pretenders, with Nick Kyrgios, who replaced the injured Milos Raonic, and the 19-year old Frances Tiafoe, deputising for the still unfit Juan Martin del Potro.
Missing also is Kei Nishikori, leaving Team World with a slew of North Americans in John Isner, No 17, Jack Sock, No 21, and the 18-year old Denis Shapovalov, No 51.
Loads of talent but low in experience.
Definitely (it was) a big honour for me to sit next to Bjorn and to open up this event, On the court he’s very easy going, very stable. He definitely gave me several advices in good times and support(ed) me … I really enjoyed my time on court with him. Marin Cilic
It was the vastly more experienced Cilic who defeated American Frances Tiafoe 7-6 (3) 7-6(1) in the first match of this unique event.
The younger man loves a big occasion, having shown as much in a near upset of Federer in the first round of the recent US Open, and the opening match of the innovative Laver Cup suited perfectly.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Frances would smile later. “The last match I played was on Arthur Ashe, so it felt pretty good out here today … I like these stages. I usually end up playing good tennis.”
Ranked world No 72, the nerveless teenager embraced the occasion, taking the tense first set into a tiebreak, neither man having capitalised on either of their lone break point opportunities.
There, Cilic was steadier, claiming the first point of the tiebreak and tightly holding onto it to secure the set in 54 minutes.
Tiafoe’s big forehand and inspiring athleticism became more of a feature in the second and he became the first man to convert a break point, going 4-1 up in the process.
Adding to the entertainment, there were some spirited celebrations, exchanges with the bench and a laughing high-five for a court side photographer.
Tiafoe’s immediate audience also helped as the more vocal Team World teammates cheered on.
“We’re all really good friends, everyone on Team World,” said the young American. “Especially me and Nick and Jack are extremely close.”
Other passionate support – and advice – came from Team Captain McEnroe, who was animated from his court side bench.
“Just try to be aggressive. Look for chances come forward. Don’t let him try and dictate,” Tiafoe said of the advice McEnroe was dispensing.
Cilic too, had a powerful backer in his team corner and in the face of the challenge presented by Tiafoe, he possessed the same cool as his captain.
“Definitely (it was) a big honour for me to sit next to Bjorn and to open up this event,” said the Team Europe member of the calm influence the 11-time Grand Slam champion.
“On the court he’s very easy going, very stable. He definitely gave me several advices in good times and support(ed) me … I really enjoyed my time on court with him.”
The theatrical Tiafoe couldn’t consolidate, his Team Europe opponent breaking back and persisting to send the second set to a tiebreak.
A double fault from Tiafoe to begin that decider further wrestled momentum, Cilic seizing the match with the last of his 17 aces.
“For me (it) was definitely great to start and to open with Frances this event, especially that we played very solid match, very good level,” said the Croat.
“I hope also that the crowd enjoyed, and definitely, for me, I’m very happy that I brought the first point for our team.”
Once Cilic had secured the first point up for grabs for Europe on Day 1, it was down to Isner to fight back against Thiem to get the World on the standings board.
The American is nothing but a fighter, towering over this opponents and thundering down his monstrous serve against one of most talented of the next generation hopefuls.
Thiem used his rare mix of spin and guile to tangle up the American, who doggedly clung on until the marathon opening set tiebreak, which he eventually grabbed after 60 minutes, 17-15, to put Team World ahead in the rubber.
The Austrian rallied back to clinch the second, also in the tiebreak, levelling proceedings to force the match tiebreak after 51 minutes.
A quick toilet break by Thiem allowed Isner some respite to regroup, and the American attacked the net at his first opportunity, dropping a delicate volley just over the net for the first mini-break and going up 4-0 as his teammates celebrated on the sideline, before the Austrian scored a point.
Thiem is a cool campaigner, however, and he recovered well enough to level with some magnificent shot making.
So far, Europe is doing well.
Isner held for 5-4 but then sprayed a forehand and then a backhand return wide on two real second-serve delivery chances to go ahead, but found himself 5-7 down instead as he netted Thiem’s return on the very next point.
He made no mistake with the overhead he next faced, though, and steadied himself to dig in deep against everything Thiem was throwing at him, but he could do nothing with the final shot forehand winner of the rally, or the next that brought up triple match point for Europe.
The American saved the first with a brave inside-out forehand and was frustrated by his un-returnable serve called ‘let’, only to push his next volley long to concede the match to Thiem, 6-7(15) 7-6(2) [10-7] after the 14 minute match tiebreak, and sending Team Europe up 2-0.
Captaincy is a new experience for Borg, and the Swede admitted to finding it more nerve-wracking to be on the bench than the baseline as Thiem claimed the first match tiebreak between two tour-level singles players to seal victory in two hours, eight minutes.
“I think I was more nervous today than when I was playing, because when you play you have control – you know what to do, or not to do” Borg said.
“But when you are watching someone you want to win, you get more emotional. You get more nervous. Of course I was little nervous when Dominic was playing today, because I wanted him to win so badly.”
“I was very nervous,” Thiem admitted, mirroring his captain. “I knew that it’s going to be a very tough and difficult match.
“It was similar to a tour match, but maybe a little bit more because the players who play are also responsible for the team they play for.
“On the tour, if you lose, it’s fine – it’s only for yourself. But here it’s for the whole Team Europe, and that’s what makes it, sort of what made me a little bit more nervous than normal.”
Each match win is worth one point on Friday, two points on Saturday, and three points on Sunday so the first team to reach 13 points out of a total 24 points available will win the Laver Cup.
If the points are tied at 12:12 at the end of all matches, a fifth match, a final overtime doubles (a Decider), will be played as a regular set with ad scoring and a tie break on Sunday to determine the winner.