Defending champions, Team Europe, were fast out of the blocks, and consolidated on the second day with two excellent performances in singles by Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev. Their wins took Europe to a 7-5 lead by the start of the final day, but such is the nature of the scoring for this unique competition that all was still up for grabs as Sunday dawned, and some of the best that tennis has to offer laid themselves on the line.
Federer, world No2, Australian Open champion, and the driving force behind this celebration of Rod Laver and his ilk, agreed to play doubles and then, immediately afterwards, singles, in an attempt to take Europe past the 13-point winning post.
His partner in doubles, Alexander Zverev, 16 years Federer’s junior and the beneficiary of unstinting support and encouragement from his idol in the early years of his already-impressive career, had won his first singles match, and would be called on to do the same come Sunday afternoon.
For the Federer/Zverev combo had lost from a winning position in their opening doubles effort to boost Team World into the lead for the first time in the tournament.
Federer, then, had to return to court against the in-form, home-supported John Isner—a fearsome opponent when his serving is ‘on’—to regain the lead. The Swiss found some of his best tennis to deny Isner three match points, and his team broke out their press-ups celebration in his honour. Of course, he joined in, before then taking on the role of coach to Zverev.
The young German ‘did a Federer’ to come back from a set down against the also in-form, home-supported Kevin Anderson, 10-7 in the final championship tie-break—and that was enough to clinch the trophy.
And even fans of captain Bjorn Borg who had enjoyed his many Major victories around 40 years ago, would have found it hard to recall a more joyful, beaming Swede.
What Chicago was denied, however, was a final singles showdown between Novak Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios, and the chance for the Wimbledon and US Open champion to close the weekend with a bang.
It was a rueful Djokovic who admitted, during the presentation ceremony, that he had not been the biggest contributor to Europe’s victory: He lost the highly-anticipated doubles pairing with Federer on the opening day, and then his singles against Kevin Anderson on Saturday.
But his involvement in the Laver Cup has been about much more than match-wins. This is the ultimate team event, the only one of its kind to bring together elite players from different countries who are more used to competing against one another.
And that coming together of individual stars has produced its own synergy, most evident in the 100 percent commitment of each team member even when they were not playing. Time and again, the player in action paid tribute to the support from his bench: The energy, on court and from courtside, was palpable.
And that was the driving force behind Djokovic’s involvement. Having watched the Laver Cup from afar during his long injury absence last summer, he was captivated by the passion and intensity, and by the bonding that took place through the course of almost a week together.
“I was watching it on the TV last year and it was very exciting to see a new concept; to see many of the guys that shared rivalries throughout their careers, like Roger and Rafa, playing on the same side of the courts, supporting each other. It’s a great team spirit.”
It is a full-on half-dozen days and nights, in fact, with team dinners, a gala night, wall-to-wall practice and tactical sessions, and even a breakfast event with Federer in aid of the Djokovic Foundation.
Federer was as keen as Djokovic to team up in doubles, too:
“Novak has such an amazing and wonderful career, so to team up with somebody of his calibre is just a treat. Talking strategy, preparing for the match and then… I don’t know, it’s just very different. It’s not something we are that used to. You learn a lot from these kind of matches, and it was a big-time match for us.”
And by the end of the week, these two intelligent, articulate champions had clearly spent a lot more quality time chewing the fat. Djokovic is the current president of tennis’s Players Council, a role that Federer held for six years, and each brings a gravitas to the tennis conversation, but also unparalleled experience are the highest level.
Asked what his highlight of the week had been, Federer said:
“For me, honestly, on a serious note, I have enjoyed spending time with Novak. I said it in the beginning that we have had an intense rivalry over the years. I always thought we got along well and respect each other on and off the court. But being able to support him, him supporting me, going through that process and talking tactics, talking team, talking who should play and just seeing what a leader also Novak can be, it’s been really nice and refreshing for me, I think… it’s been nice on many levels.”
“It’s almost like a perfect tennis dream. You know, I have experienced a lot, and I have been really blessed to play this sport at high levels for so many years, but to talk with Roger about different things related to tennis, life, family, football, and the other guys just joking around and dancing to Grigor’s music, enjoying Kyle’s singing, and following Jeremy everywhere he goes, yeah, it was a lot of fun.”
First and foremost, of course, Federer and Djokovic have been, and remain, rivals of the first order. With a tally of 34 Majors between them, and 46 matches against one another—all of them since 2007 played at semi-final or final level aside from a couple of round-robins—they have become one of tennis’s finest and most compelling shows. Naturally, therefore, there has always been a healthy respect for one another. It is simply, they both affirmed, that there is now another personal layer to the relationship.
Federer: “Most people worry about the rivalry after this, because they think you’re going to go on vacation together. I think the rivalry will remain strong, as well. I want to beat Novak next time I play him and I think vice versa. You want to beat the best, and that’s why I think we are both still on tour.
“I do believe, me helping out his Foundation, maybe down the road there are also more things to do on that front. Just spending time together like this is definitely a good thing for our relationship, no doubt.”
Djokovic: “So that kind of quality time is something that can only strengthen the relationship. And respect, you know, was there, is there, and will be there forever.”
Not that the idea of a vacation was dismissed entirely. In a champagne-fuelled final press conference, the fun side of the duo also had a chance to break out:
Federer: “Are we not going on vacation together?”
Djokovic: “As long as you pay.”
Federer: “I can. That’s the problem. [Laughter.] You can, too, though!”
But don’t hold your breath on that one.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge