Laver Cup 2019: Thiem wins thrilling opener; Sock scores first World Day 1 win
Nadal, Federer, Borg and McEnroe wear hearts on sleeves at courtside
Everything was just so, for little has been left to chance in this eclectic, innovative and charismatic tournament. For the Laver Cup, the brain-child of Roger Federer and created in honour of two-time Grand Slam champion, Rod Laver, has all the hallmarks of heavyweight determination and star power.
A packed 17,000 arena in the Swiss icon’s home city of Geneva? Check.
Black court, leather seats, and backboards, lit by luminous white lines, and the white lettering of some of the most prestigious sponsors in the world—Rolex, Mercedes, Credit Suisse? Check.
Vivid deep blue and red lighting in honour of the Team Europe and Team World colours? Check.
Laver in the front row, and big-time former Major champions—John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg—courtside, taking on their captain’s roles in that familiar fire-and-ice style? Check.
And enough big-name, high-ranking players to take the breath away—five of the current top seven in the world, including the No2 Rafael Nadal and No3 Federer, representing a record 19 and 20 Majors respectively? Check.
What is more, with teammates watching and discussing players from just a metre or two away—nowhere to hide, hearts on sleeves—the innate enthusiasm of team sport permeates the event.
The pressure for the two young stars tasked with opening proceedings, therefore, was palpable. It fell to 26-year-old Dominic Thiem, world No5, Roland Garros finalist and Indian Wells champion, against 20-year-old Denis Shapovalov, inside the top 20 five months ago, and a prodigious talent with three Masters semi runs to his name.
Both sport single-handed backhands, Thiem’s from the right wing, Shapovalov’s from the left, but the Austrian with the edge in experience, and with two wins from two previous matches. Thiem, then, broke in the third game, had more break points to make it 4-1, and more again to make it 5-2. He finally served out the set, 6-4.
McEnroe was ruthless in dealing with his young Canadian player: “You’ve got to be more disciplined…” Shapovalov looked downcast—restrained play is not his style—but the errors continued to flow into the second set, 17 to Thiem’s four by 1-1.
However, the aggressive play of the Canadian began to bear fruit, as he threw in some bold and flamboyant net plays, and he broke for 3-1 in the second set. For while there may have been more errors on the World side, there were also more winners, 20, compared with nine from Thiem.
Now, though, the Austrian pulled off a perfect lob on break point, clenched his fist, and wiped out Shapovalov’s advantage. Nadal leapt, pumped and roared as though Spain had just scored a goal in the World Cup.
And in truth, there has always been almost as much entertainment to be had from watching the team benches as from watching the combatants.
Nadal lives and breathes every point of every game, now jumping up, now burying head in hands, scrunching his eyes in despair, a bundle of nerves.
The Spaniard has, almost since his arrival in Geneva, been joined at the hip with Federer, with both clearly revelling in each other’s company without their renowned rivalry getting in the way. But the Swiss is the chilled one, chatting and gesticulating as if out for a morning coffee. He lounges back in his seat, legs crossed, arms stretched out—but when his team member wins a big point, Federer is ready, and if his player calls for encouragement, the Swiss is the first on his feet.
Borg, of course, gives away nothing—never did in the heat of competition, and continues to waste not one iota of energy. He stands, claps calmly, smiles, offers just a few words. Compare and contrast that with his opposite number, the other half another famed friendship and rivalry, McEnroe. The American prowls the sidelines, scowling, pumping, injecting passion into every change of ends.
And on the platform behind him, the irrepressible Nick Kyrgios echoes his captain, unable to keep still, on his feet, shouting encouragement.
The enthusiasm worked, too: Shapovalov produced an attacking masterclass to break for the set, 7-5, with 14 points won at the net. It would come down to a champions’ tie-break, first to 10 rather than seven. And the Canadian took the initial lead, 3-1.
But Thiem pulled back with a line-skimming pass, and they changed ends all square. Again, errors flowed from the racket of the youngest player in the tournament, 3-5 down: Shapovalov was as taut as a rubber band. But so was his opponent.
The next time they changed ends, it was 7-5 to Thiem—but the advantage switched sides, 8-7 to Shapovalov, who served for the set at 9-7. But in the blink of an eye, he found himself serving to save the set, 9-10, before earning another match-point himself. Could Thiem deny him again? Yes, and it went to 11-11.
Finally, experience won the day, 13-11, to earn the first point of the Laver Cup for Europe.
For the second players, Fabio Fognini and Jack Sock, there was something of an opening lull: fans and team-mates needed a break and something to eat, but it was Europe’s Fognini, into the top 10 for the first time this year, who needed buoying up after a lack-lustre opening set, broken twice and unable to convert a couple of chances to break back. Sock won the opener, 6-1.
Fognini was egged on by Nadal, pouring out Italian advice, and by Federer, who tried to drive him on: “I don’t want any more negativity from you…”
But Fognini looks baffled, and it seemed as though the pressure of expectation of two of the sport’s greatest players weighed heavy in the face of exuberant tennis from Sock.
And the American, who had suffered injury problems earlier this year, and was thus ranked at a lowly 210, had impressed in the first two editions of the Laver Cup, racking up 10 points—second only to Federer—but all of them in doubles.
So although Sock was the outsider in this match, he went on to steal a much tighter second set, 7-6(3), and thus became the first Team World player to win an opening-day singles match. He admitted:
“I’m sure everybody here is surprised I won a singles match. I had thumb surgery in February and was out for almost six months. For some reason the Laver Cup seems to bring the best tennis out of everyone here.”
He was not wrong: He had only to look at the faces of those men on the team benches. And that spirit will rise to another level later on, when home hero Federer takes to court for the first time.
Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Taylor Fritz 6-2 1-6 10-7
Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev beat Jack Sock and Denis Shapovalov 6-3 7-5