Laver Cup 2017: World’s best Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer take up the baton for Europe
Roger Federer beat Sam Querrey and Rafael Nadal downs Jack Sock as Team Europe stay in control at the Laver Cup
The home team could not have hoped for a better start from their first three singles matches on the first day of the Laver Cup in Prague. Wins, albeit tight wins in tie-breakers, for Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev.
Each of those victories earned Europe one point, and with a loss at the end of the day in doubles, it still gave them a substantial lead. The stakes were a little higher on Saturday, though: two points per win.
But in all honesty, there were few in Prague, nor among the thousands who had, quite literally, travelled the globe to be here, who were not desperate to see the two best players in the world, No1 Rafael Nadal and No4 Roger Federer, finally take to court.
Time and again, their names have been bracketed with the that of the man whose name is writ large around the host city of Prague, Rod Laver—the greatest to have ever played the game. As John McEnroe, captain of the World team, former No1 and winner of seven Major singles titles himself said:
“Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, along with the person who this event is named after, are the greatest players that ever played the game, so needless to say, we have our hands full.”
And there has been an intensity about both Nadal and Federer ever since they arrived here, not least in supporting their team-mates yesterday: first to their feet, grasping each other’s arm, punching the air, and taking turns to slip down for a bit of coaching courtside.
That they started the year as No9 and No17 respectively after both going through the mill with injury last year, and arrived here as the top-ranked men in tennis, is also testament to the intensity of their work before and during this season, and the intensity of their desire to win.
Between them, the reinvigorated champions have cut a swathe through the season to share the four Majors between them, and win two Masters and a 500 title apiece.
To make matters more daunting for their respective opponents, No21 Jack Sock and No16 Sam Querrey, neither of the Americans had won a match in seven previous meetings with Nadal and Federer. Yes, they would have their hands full.
Sure enough, Federer, who carried a back problem through the latter stages of the US Open swing, looked fit and flowing in his many practice sessions here. He has, of course, enjoyed much success indoors, and this would be his first return to the hard indoors since he finished runner up at the World Tour Finals in 2015. How, then, had he found this unusual black court?
“I think initially was interesting for the players, because the black with the white lines, it’s a big contrast, it was a lot on the eye. We just had to get used to it. I think it was also actually to be playing indoors, as well, because we have been outdoors for so long now that getting back on the indoors is always a bit of a change in the lights.
“I think the court allows for good hitting, and if you serve well, you can also protect your serve very nicely. You can play defence, you can play offence. I think it’s also not to be underestimated—it is like a first round for us when you come out that first time, so it’s hard to be just half-volleying, screamer shots, forehands and backhands from the baseline. You have to find some rhythm, too.”
Nadal was so determined to ‘find some rhythm’, Federer revealed, that he was up a 6.30 in the morning to get started.
Federer certainly showed little rust and plenty of determination against Querrey, speeding through, 6-4 6-2, in little more than an hour. He was fist-pumping early, exclaiming ‘Yawohl’, ‘Chum Jetz’ and ‘Come on’ in multilingual turn.
With his second break on the board in the second set, he thrilled the fans with a cheeky SABR attack: Querrey returned, Federer was into the net with a volley winner, and the arena erupted. To Querrey’s credit, he then sent down two aces, but the writing was on the wall. Federer sealed the deal with his own superlative serving, the quickest match of the tournament.
So how did he feel after his energetic test?
“For a first round, this was excellent. I was very happy with my movement here. There were moments when I had to defend, as well, and get to shots. I did that well.”
He continued: “I think the next couple of weeks and then Shanghai and the week after are going to be very important for me, too, because next week I will go straight into training with my fitness coach. I have my rest, so now it’s about staying in shape and staying fast and all these things that are so much required for my game.”
His next test, though, will be the highly-anticipated doubles pairing with Nadal—a first in the history of two men who have contested the biggest titles in tennis through 37 singles meetings. But make no mistake, both stars know their way around a doubles court: Both have won Olympic gold and both have had success in Davis Cup.
Before that, Nadal may have expected a quick blast to two points, as well, especially after breaking early in the first set and serving it out, 6-3. But Sock hit back in the second set to break in the sixth game, 4-2, and levelled for, 6-3.
It would take a tie-break, and Nadal again took control, 5-1, after Sock took a tumble and pulled his hamstring. But in the blink of an eye, the American was firing forehand winners down the line and, but for a netcord, could have edged ahead. But fate was with Nadal, and from 8-8, the Spaniard went one ahead, and seized the win, 11-9.
Should anyone doubt the commitment of these players to the tournament and the title, their respective reactions spoke volumes. Nadal’s fist-pumping celebration was the equal to any other title this year. And Sock was the diametric opposite. A smashed racket, and he slumped off court with head bowed.
So Europe goes 7-1 ahead, with the match between Nick Kyrgios and Tomas Berdych providing the appetizer to the Federer/Nadal doubles against Sam Querrey/Sock. Two more wins, and they will need to take just one tomorrow.