The United Center in Chicago is vast, and should there be any doubt about the illustrious teams who call this home, the banners that hang from the roof say it all: Chicago Bulls colours fill one side, Chicago Blackhawks colours the other.
Roger Federer, the man behind the annual team event to celebrate Rod Laver and the tennis heritage he represents, was eager to name-check one of the superstars of American sport, Chicago Bull Michael Jordan:
“Jordan was my hero growing up. To play in the building in Chicago where he’s won so much, when I was practising, I looked up and saw his success and his jersey and all that. It’s cool, very cool. It was also a great honour to meet [another Bull] Scottie Pippen earlier in the year when we came here to promote.”
Edmund, just 23 years old, and playing in this event for the first time alongside tennis greats Federer and Novak Djokovic, does not give much away in expression or body language, on or off court, but he has found it hard to hide just how honoured he was to be asked to join Team Europe:
“The chance to play tennis here is once in a lifetime… For me as a 23-year-old to be involved in this is amazing.”
But Edmund had more than earned his place: He was one of nine top-16 men in a tally of 12, and while he was the lowest ranked of the six on Europe’s team, he counted a Major semi-final among his achievements this year—in Australia—and also had experience of winning a team title at the highest level: Great Britain’s Davis Cup victory in 2015.
He was ranked 50 at the start of 2018 before that breakout Major performance in Australia, where he beat Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov along the way.
After a final run in Marrakech and the quarters at the Madrid Masters, where he beat both Novak Djokovic and David Goffin, he went on to beat Lucas Pouille in Rome and Andy Murray on the grass of Eastbourne.
In announcing Edmund as his Captain’s pick, Bjorn Borg, assessed his young recruit:
“Kyle is an outstanding young player who’s achieved some great results and big wins over top players. I’m also impressed with his meticulous and methodical approach to the sport, and believe he will be a great fit with the team.”
That Edmund was pitched in the very first session of the tournament against the Team World Captain’s pick, Jack Sock, might have sent shivers through a less composed young man. After all, Sock is currently ranked just one place below Edmund, and has been as high as No8. And the American arrived here with the last two Major doubles titles to his name—at Wimbledon and the US Open.
Sock and Edmund stood at one win apiece, but since their last encounter, indoors at the Paris Masters, the American’s singles form had slipped while Edmund’s had risen. And becoming the British No1 this year in place of long-term mentor Murray, had certainly boosted his confidence—and his standing against other players.
Edmund was enjoying getting to know players that, until now, he had only faced across the net:
“As a tennis player, your job is around them week after week, but you don’t really know them. Those are the things that help you feel comfortable with them. There have been a lot of jokes and stuff, and good chemistry.
“I wouldn’t say you’re intimidated [by Roger and Novak], but the respect level for them is huge and I don’t think that will change in this week. You continue to respect them, but you just know them a little bit better.”
But today was, yes, a lion’s den. Not only did Edmund have the pressure of holding up his end among such illustrious team-mates, he had to contend with huge support for his opponent.
And he rose to the occasion with vim, making inroads with his formidable forehand, but also picking off some cross-court backhand winners that had his team on its feet. He got a timely break in the first set, 6-4, but then Sock began to lift his level in the second.
Neither could convert a break chance as they headed towards 5-5, and already the contrasting styles of the back-up teams was clear. The Reds, for the World, jumped and pumped and called on the crowd for more noise. The Blues, for Europe, stood, clapped, encouraged, a solid wall.
But Sock did get the breakthrough to serve out the second set, 7-5. They would have to decide this one in a championship tie-break, first to 10 points. Edmund took the lead and never lost it, 10-6, and allowed himself a smile for the first time.
Of course, Edmund has experienced having a Davis Cup captain sitting beside him, but what was it like having Federer, Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, Federer again, amble down to speak in your ear during the match?
“I didn’t find it distracting. Of course, those guys are also tennis players, and they are experienced. They are aware that when [they] do say those things, sometimes you don’t want it. So the guys are very sort of calculated, not too much information but encouragement and help… Some were helping and saying, ‘You’re playing good tennis, just a few balls in it, very close margins.”
Edmund’s conclusion summed up the growing confidence of a man now in the top ranks of his sport:
“I do pinch myself. It is an amazing opportunity to get to be here and also playing in that arena. The other side of it is I have to look at myself and believe that I do belong here. I don’t think you can be in an environment like this if you’re tiptoeing around, and you really have to be confident within yourself and believe in your game. So it’s getting that right balance of knowing to be humble and also knowing when to be confident about yourself.”
Edmund’s win capped a fine first session for Europe, as Dimitrov, also debuting in the tournament, had already notched up a win over the youngest player, Frances Tiafoe, 6-1, 6-4.
Federer, such a driving force behind the whole event, was delighted but cautious:
“It’s been a wonderful start for us. Both Grigor and Kyle played amazing tennis and I think this court allows any type of player to shine. I know me and Novak need to be well prepared for tonight’s doubles because Jack and Kevin [Anderson] can play extremely well.
“I think they are favourites to win all three doubles, actually. Jack may be the world’s best doubles player in the world right now. But what a thrill it is to be teaming up with Novak. I’ve not played doubles since with Rafa here last year—I choose to play with the best in the world!”
He alluded to the final match of the day, the highlight of Friday’s action: the pairing of the current world No2 and No3, with a joint tally of 34 Major singles titles, and with an intense rivalry of 46 matches. Indeed, aside from occasional round-robin meetings at the ATP Finals, they had met only in finals and semi-finals since Dubai in 2007.
Now these two 30-somethings, fathers both, winners of three of this year’s Majors, would join forces for the first time. It was not to be missed.
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