Laver Cup 2017: Zverev and Shapovalov lock horns just a month on from debut showdown
Alexander Zverev beats Denis Shapovalov to give Europe a 3-0 lead in the first ever Laver Cup in Prague
You might say there was a score to be settled between two of the most exciting young players on the tour.
Both Alexander Zverev and Denis Shapovalov have been making waves on the #NextGen map: They stand at No1 and No4 respectively, with the 20-year-old Zverev already a cert for Milan and 18-year-old Shapovalov rising so fast that it will take some big moves from fellow #NextGen players to keep him out.
Naturally, given the two-year gap in their experience and maturity, the tall, powerful Zverev has also already made a significant mark on the main tour, with five titles—including two Masters—this year alone. Confident beyond his years, he has grown easily into his role as poster-boy for the rising stars in tennis.
Shapovalov, winner of last year’s Wimbledon junior title, has come on in leaps and bounds since then, showing off all his flamboyant flair to beat Nick Kyrgios on home soil in Toronto last year, ranked 370, and by this year and Montreal, he had reached 143. By the time his home Masters was done, though, he was encroaching on the top 50, was the youngest ever Masters semi-finalist, and had beaten Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal into the bargain.
There, though, he was halted by Zverev, who went on to win the title, while Shapovalov, despite his surge in the rankings, was too late to avoid qualifying at the US Open. Never fear: He made it to the main draw and all the way to the fourth round in only his second Major—better than his elder rival.
That they were now playing in such illustrious company for such a prestigious trophy made this second step in their budding rivalry all the more intriguing. Was Shapovalov ready for an upset?
From the first, though, Zverev seemed to have the upper hand, though he had to dig into that experience to fight off an important break point at 4-5 down. He could not break through the athletic left-handed Canadian’s all court game so it headed to a tie-break.
The Laver Cup is offering up some unconventional elements in its format that at first shock and then draw a smile. There was Nick Kyrgios sitting with captain John McEnroe and Shapovalov to offer up his opinion; next, the extrovert Australian was orchestrating a Mexican wave at the change of ends—and to great effect—and it inspired the teenager to great shot-making.
However, Zverev would not be diverted even by an impromptu round of cheering for Federer, captured by the cameras mid-game. Yes, Zverev agreed: Give him a cheer.
But the serious business of a tie-break was treated with respect, and the 6ft 6in German grabbed it, 7-6(3). However, it was obvious that Federer, Marin Cilic and Dominic Thiem were checking out Shapovalov’s shot-making—with some admiration. The Canadian pulled off a few cracking volleys, the Europe team replayed them, discussed them, and Federer even crept down to whisper some advice in Zverev’s ear.
Meanwhile, the feisty World squad did press ups, jumped and cheered every winning shot from their man, and that perhaps helped him to survive match points in the second set and take it to another tie-break—remarkably the seventh straight one in the third match of the day.
Again, Zverev zoned in, the Canadian double faulted, and the German aced out the match, 7-6(5), but it was a close thing, rather closer than their last contest.
Zverev was as eloquent as ever in his subsequent press conference—and he talks fluently in German, Russian and English.
What did he make of the elaborate displays of support by the World team?
“I mean, I saw the sliding and whatever, the push-ups they did. I had a smile on my face a little bit. They are all great guys. Nick is an entertainer, we all know that. The Americans, Jack [Sock] and John [Isner] also are great guys. They are having fun, trying to cheer on.
“But when we are all out on court, this is maybe even more special than a regular tournament. This is the most fun I have had at an event with all those guys, with Roger and Rafa and Marin and Dominic and Tomas [Berdych] and Fernando [Verdasco] and all the team captains, having the dinners together, listening to the stories they have been through, just being part of it was amazing. But I think everybody is taking it completely serious. At the end of the day we want to win.”
And that is a message repeated by each winner today, and is certainly affirmed by their competitive tennis.
However, one of the biggest thrills in this event for tennis fans has been the bringing together of two of the greatest men’s rivalries of our age. Here, Federer and Nadal have been more like brothers than rivals, despite their famed history, and most hope, and expect, that they will join forces for doubles by the end of the tournament.
Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe split their meetings seven apiece, before Borg retired suddenly and early. Their rivalry has even been turned into a film, launched this month, but through it all, they have, Borg explained, remained friends:
“Well, me and John, we’re good friends, so even after the matches, we see each other, even here. We keep in touch. We have been doing that for many years. We are very good friends.
“To see him on the other side, it’s a special feeling. 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… We are happy to be on the court to see these guys play great tennis.”
So had the O2 witnessed another rivalry in the making between Zverev and Shapovalov? Not just yet, according to Zverev:
“I think the greatest players of all time all have rivalries with each other, John and Björn, Roger and Rafa, Novak, Andy, Pete [Sampras] and Andre Agassi.
“You know, they all had rivals. We are too young to have rivals, because we played only a few guys three, four times. But hopefully in the future, in like 10 or 12 years’ time when you ask the question, we can say, Yeah, we had a great rivalry, and hopefully it can continue. Right now it’s too early to say that we have a rivalry between any of us.”
Yes, he is a smart one, but his fans, and those of Shapovalov, may hope that this particular pairing flowers into a special one. Shapovalov was hopeful that it would:
“First of all, I want to say, yeah, it was a special match today. Not because I was playing Zverev but because I was playing in front of guys like Rod Laver and Roger and Rafa, all of them sitting there watching me.
“[As for rivalry] against Zverev, for sure, why not? He’s an unbelievable player, No4 in the world right now. He’s had such a great year. To have a chance to push him, and I thought I could have won that match, it’s motivating for me, but I’m sure we are going to play so many times in the future if we both keep improving. Yeah, and why not? Why not have a healthy rivalry?”
Amen to that.
The pairing of Jack Sock and Kyrgios went on to claim the only point of the day for the World team, when they beat Nadal and Tomas Berdych in doubles, 6-3, 7-6(7), 10-7.