Laver Cup 2017: Colour, innovation, team-work, and tough tennis engage the fans—and team-mates
The first ever Laver Cup tournament got under way in Prague on Friday, with Marin Cilic beating Frances Tiafoe in the opener
They have not stinted on the technology, the new ideas, the lively concepts and, of course, the quality of the players in this first playing of the Laver Cup. All that was clear before a ball was hit in competition.
Every member was introduced with appropriate accolades—and with names like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, all before Rod Laver himself, this had packed the crowds in.
In the style stakes alone, this event scores big points: Dramatic black court with a sea of space at each end; line judges merging the team colours of red and blue in purple shirts—with of course, black—and the ball kids fading into the shadows in deep grey kit.
Only the brilliant flame and lapis figures of the players pierced the monochrome setting, and that threw their movement into sharp relief—literally. Even the non-playing members on their black leather sofas could not escape: Every move, every gesture caught on multiple cameras behind the colour-coded lighting.
Children soon lined the steps to either side—gazing. A goldfish bowl? Just a bit.
And when it started, there was a pace and a drama to proceedings: time short between games and sets, but still punctuated by high-volume snippets of video crisply timed to fit… no “advertising breaks” for TV here.
Marin Cilic and Frances Tiafoe were first up, separated by almost a decade in age and by 67 ranking places, but they would be separated by far less in the match: Two tie-breaks of exactly 53 minutes each—both won by Cilic.
But behind the on-court drama was the one played out by fellow players: a feast of body-language and relationship-building.
The first rush of anticipation came in the seventh game, a break point to Tiafoe, and Federer was first on his feet as Cilic came through his test to hold… yes, this meant a good deal. The Swiss, whose brainchild this event has been, has firmly denied taking a leading role in his team, but his engagement with colleagues suggested otherwise.
Dominic Thiem, a quiet presence at the end of the sofa, was brought into the conversation, Tomas Berdych included, soon all were involved.
Federer and Nadal, great rivals on court but great friends off court, clearly get on like a house on fire: They talked constantly—Federer with hands, Nadal with shoulders—and jumped to their feet at each big point. The Swiss gestured to use Hawkeye: He was, as so often, wrong.
In front of the sofas, Borg and McEnroe played out their own drama of contrasts: McEnroe frantically chewing, brow furrowed, hands clasped in his lap. Borg? Leaning back, legs crossed, arm draped along the player’s bench. Still the coolest man in the building.
The respective benches emptied at the end of the first set, and an animated McEnroe was on his feet, instructing Tiafoe, and it worked. A quick break, and he went up 4-1, only for Cilic to reel off four points and break back. A love hold and it was 4-4.
Borg eyeballed the animated McEnroe: What was his old rival saying to his young charge?
Cut to the players’ lounge, and Thiem was preparing for his upcoming match with some keepy-uppy, while Zverev tucked into food. Four hours until he was on court: yes, timing your fuel intake is crucial.
Meanwhile, Cilic was completing a clean sweep, 7-6(0), with an ace. Cue celebration.
Would the second match focus the fans and fellow players as much? It was a tricky start: many of the crowd still topping up the calories, and just the vice-captains keeping those black sofas warm.
John Isner fired down huge serves, Thiem defended, but McEnroe sensed a win here, and paced around Isner at the change-over. A long opening point at 5-5, and the World Team was on its feet, imploring the crowd for more. Nick Kyrgios and Jack Sock, firm friends, and up for doubles later, started to break out some Superman moves.
Now Nadal and Federer were back courtside—again heads together chatting 19 to the dozen. Thiem needed help: It was tie-break time. Nadal was on the edge of his seat, telling Federer how Thiem should play the shot… he grew more tense, more animated, as the match went on. And it did become tense, a tie-break decided at 17-15—to Isner.
It was all square in the second set, both teams now engrossed in the tactics of their man. Nadal was living every point, and Federer popped down for a word at the change of ends. Thiem suddenly had a break chance—but was beaten by that serve.
He had another chance at 5-4—set point—and another, courtesy of a stunning backhand return of serve: Even Borg rose to his feet. Another ace, and another: 5-5.
But now Thiem had to resist break points, and did so: This time, Nadal slipped down for a word with Borg: #Thiemwork.
It would take another tie-break, and the young Austrian, No7 in the world, surged through, 7-6(2). For the first time in a singles match, the crowd would see a super-tie-break set—and were roundly warned that, if they left the court, they would not get in until it was done.
The youthful exuberance of the World team—comprising two teenagers, 22-year-old Kyrgios and 24-year-old Sock, celebrated a four-point lead: They jumped and pumped.
Europe raised their fists as Thiem levelled—and he would then overhaul Isner with some remarkable returns off 134mph serves. He had the decider, 10-7, so order, in a sense, was restored: The higher seeds picked up a point each for their team.
And some of the questions posed about the tournament, the format, the commitment of the players, were also answered. These had been full-throttle contests, backed by passionate supporters.
The body-language said it all, but the words afterwards reinforced that message.
Tiafoe: “We are all really good friends, everyone on Team World… Yeah, they were pretty funny out there today. It’s just kind of like a Davis Cup but even better because it’s among friends and not only for your country. Having the likes of John McEnroe next to me giving me tips is definitely unbelievable. Something I’ll remember forever.”
Cilic: “In one way it’s definitely a lot of fun [to have team-mates watching]. In the other way, I think it just gives you a little bit more extra determination and have that extra focus… That team from the side-lines can give you that extra edge, can bring you that few percent that could make a difference.
“Also, we are talking a lot about the matches, talking about tactics, how to play who and in which kind of way, so it also opens up your mind to different ideas for the game.”
Thiem: “It already felt really, really good before I played, because we spend the last couple days together, a really nice experience. It got even better when I played, because to have absolute legend on the bench with me, and then I got advice from Roger and Rafa, I mean, you cannot be higher, I think, in tennis. That I won in the end, it made the day perfect for me.”
Now it was up to the youngest European, Alexander Zverev, to see if he could win point No3, over the exciting teenager, Shapovalov.
Game on—for all 12 players.