The red and blue banners at every turn proclaim the reason for the excitement, for the bus diversions, for the road closures, for the huge greenhouse-come-sauna of a Fan Zone that has taken over one of the adjacent parking lots. This is the second playing of the Laver Cup, and Chicago, home of some of the USA’s biggest sporting teams, has embraced tennis with gusto.
Little wonder: Seven of the top 11 men in tennis will be in action here over the next three days—and in open practice action for the fans, too. Though such is the limited space alongside the hot and steamy court that fans are chivvied from one end to the other in super-quick time.
Two of this sport’s superstars, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, winners of three Majors between them this year and with a career tally of 34 Majors, will headline the blues, Team Europe. And it was Federer who, at 4pm on a hot and sultry Thursday afternoon, had drawn a few hundred metres of fans hoping to catch a glimpse at practice.
A glimpse was about right, as he went through his paces with Alexander Zverev. Both played up to the fans, but both were on a tight schedule. After all, a pre-tournament, black-tie brouhaha beckoned on the waterfront.
It was, indeed, a day of to-ing and fro-ing, practices and press conferences, interviews and photo-calls—much as the preceding day had been. Federer is the master of such media demands—he has, after all, had 20 years of practice since winning his first main-tour match. And Zverev has learnt much from the Master: At just 21, he is an assured, confident member of Team Europe.
These two are, in fact, the only Europeans back after their trophy-winning debut in Prague. And Europe against has the ranking edge even if home advantage goes to Team World.
The first test, a tactical one, was between captains Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. The nature of the tournament is that the first matches earn the fewest points, so losses have less impact on the overall standings. The best-of-three-set contests, with a 10-point tiebreaker if sets are split, earn one point on Day 1, two points on Day 2, and three points on Day 3.
At the schedule reveal, then, both sides nominated several of their new recruits to open.
Two debutants, Grigor Dimitrov and Frances Tiafoe, would take to the signature black court first. They would be followed by first-timer Kyle Edmund against Jack Sock, who had a whale of a time last year.
The evening session brought two more new members, the hugely popular David Goffin and Diego Schwartzman. But who would play the concluding doubles match?
McEnroe announced his big guns: Sock, winner of the doubles titles at both Wimbledon and the US Open, would join forces with the big man who has many Chicago ties, Kevin Anderson. A crowd-pleaser, then for the American home fans, yet the duo may still find themselves battling to get the support.
There was high expectation that Federer and Djokovic would combine forces in the doubles at some point, just as Federer and Rafael Nadal had done last year. But when captain Borg revealed that the super-duo would play the very first doubles match of the tournament, it is probably fair to say it was a surprise.
Borg, in his inimitable understated style, explained simply:
“They are eager to play, so best to get them up first.”
Even McEnroe was taken aback:
“I did have an inkling they would play, but I am surprised they would play the first day.”
And what did the world No2 and No3 think about teaming up with such a long-standing rival? Lest fans forget, they have, in the 12 years of that rivalry, played 46 times and, aside from occasional round-robin meetings at the ATP World Tour Finals, have met only in finals and semi-finals since Dubai in 2007.
“I’m thrilled, excited, I have never played with Novak. We have had so many great battles in all the singles courts, and to finally team up together I think is going to be very special for both of us.
“I think we still have to talk over… who’s going to take the lead or how do we play exactly. But we know it’s going to be a tough one. Indoor doubles is always very hard to take charge and dominate, to be quite honest. I think it’s all about intensity for us. We have a great support team here. We are hoping for a really great opening day. It will be very exciting to kick things off in the doubles together. It’s very cool.”
“Obviously, as Roger said, very, very excited to have the unique experience. We never played doubles together. This is what this competition is all about, you know, bringing us all together… We are going to have a great challenge and hopefully great support from team members, and we can have fun.”
And what formation will they take on the court? It was, perhaps, no secret:
Federer: “I think I will take the deuce side. If Novak is OK with that, I will be happy to play on the deuce side.”
Djokovic: “I think I’m OK on the backhand.”
He grinned, and the assembled media and fellow team-mates laughed. Djokovic does, by general consensus, have one of the best backhands in the business. Put that alongside Federer’s famed forehand on the other wing, and the Sock/Anderson pairing will have their work cut out.
Their match may be worth only one point in the Laver Cup tally, but it will be worth gold for the fans.
Friday 21 September
Day session, 1pm
Grigor Dimitrov vs Frances Tiafoe
Kyle Edmund vs Jack Sock
Night session, 7pm
David Goffin vs Diego Schwartzman
Novak Djokovic/Roger Federer vs Kevin Anderson/Jack Sock
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