It may take a while for The Laver Cup to grow on me. Maybe I am like most of the tennis world – placing the Grand Slams so far above everything else that I just can’t feel the same restless excitement as I do when play begins in Center Court, Wimbledon.
That’s what I thought before the inaugural competition got underway in Prague. So far, it has been an absolute blast. There’s been a lot of talk about how the competition will be received, considering the similarities to the Davis Cup and the abbreviated scoring system. More importantly, a lot of tennis pundits wondered how the participating players would approach this. The answer? Very seriously, with a whole lot of team spirit and a healthy dash of exhibitionism. Without much ado, here are my observations from day one of The Laver Cup.
Europe vs World: A Difference in Class
There has been a lot of talk about how Team World would do against Team Europe. Team World clearly didn’t have a lot going for it, coming into day one. On average, they have the lower ranked players on their team. They do not have an active player with a grand slam title to his name, and their overall head to head record against Team Europe is depressing at best. Even their captain, John McEnroe, has fewer grand slams than Team Europe’s captain, Bjorn Borg.
How did things pan out? For the most part, it went as expected. Team Europe swept the first three matches. However, those matches were close. Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic, and Dominic Thiem, all had to win tiebreakers to put away Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe, and John Isner. Watching these matches, I could tell that Europe has a very different playing style from the rest of the world. The Europeans are point constructors and their very best are capable of hitting rallying shots for long periods, without missing. They are excellent movers too – this includes their big hitters like Cilic. On the other hand, the World players aren’t too keen to keep a rally going, love to finish points early, and look more ready for a sprint than a marathon. By the end of the second set against Thiem, Isner was sucking in air.
The biggest difference to me, however, was the serve-return dynamic, during crunch time. It doesn’t get more crunch time than a tiebreak. Both Shapovalov and Tiafoe played brilliant matches and lost in two tiebreak sets – Shapovalov, after saving three match points. In both cases, experience and patience were the difference. Marin Cilic showed his battle-hardened ability to raise his game and keep his muscles loose when it gets tight, while Tiafoe, practically fell apart. With Shapovalov, his more accomplished next-gen member allowed him to miss his way into a hole he couldn’t climb out of. John Isner was the only Team World player to win a tiebreak. We have Isner’s serve and experience to thank for that. However, by set 2, Thiem was drawing a good beat on the Isner serve and his natural ball-striking talent overwhelmed the American.
Team World did get their hurray though. The doubles match pitting Rafael Nadal and Tomas Berdych against Jack Sock and Nick Kyrgios was as entertaining as they come. Kyrgios and Sock got the deserving win after prevailing against an especially fired up Nadal – no easy feat – and finally putting a genuine smile on John McEnroe’s face. The big takeaway cannot be ignored. Europeans currently rule in tennis and the rest of the world has some work to do to catch up. I know this is only day one, but… Federer and Nadal haven’t even played singles yet and Team World is down 1 – 3. Learning point construction and patient tennis would be a good start.
The Next-Gen could use this
There was a shot of Federer giving Alexander Zverev some advice on – gasps – court positioning, particularly as the rally progresses. Federer emphasized not losing the baseline to Shapovalov, particularly as the rally enters its third, maybe fourth shot. It is a great lesson. The further up the court you are, the more you can dictate. However, what was fantastic about this moment was that the giver was Roger Federer and the receiver was Alexander Zverev. These men are fifteen years apart. One is widely regarded as the greatest of all time and the other is having his breakout season. I think being in the company of all that greatness and being able to tap into its unique mindset, will only help guys like Zverev, Tiafoe, Shapovalov, Kyrgios and Thiem. There will always be a next-gen, and tournaments like this could help them settle in and understand what it really takes to put together a legendary career.
Kyrgios needs to get Serious
Earlier this month, Nick Kyrgios talked about how much easier it is for him to get up and play for someone, rather than himself. Well… whatever self-motivation he needs, he needs to find it and fast. In the doubles match, Kyrgios was phenomenal. He just might be the most dangerous member of Team World. He has never been one to be intimidated by Nadal, or any other established tennis player. He is also more than your typical Team World big hitter. His overwhelming talent and striking court presence were on display in the doubles match and clearly brought out the best in Rafa/Berdych. I hope this competition wakes up something in him. One can only hope.
What were your takeaways from day one? Let us know in the comments section below!