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Laver Cup began with a good-bye to Roger Federer, and ended with a hello to a rejuvenated Team World
By Sunday, the competition was on, and it was all about the future thanks to efforts from Felix Auger-Aliassime and Frances Tiafoe.
Published Sep 26, 2022
Is men’s tennis making a transition from one generation to the next? I’ll believe it when Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal stop combining to win three Grand Slam titles per season.
But after what we saw this weekend, Laver Cup certainly seems to be undergoing a changing of the guard. On Friday, the event began with 41-year-old Roger Federer’s farewell match, and the final appearance of the Big 4 together as professionals. On Sunday, it ended with Cup-clinching victories by 22-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime and 24-year-old Frances Tiafoe. Together they led a youthful Team World to its first win in five tries over Team Europe’s old guard.
Just 12 months ago, Europe beat World 14-1 in Boston, and many of us were starting to wonder if Europe would go undefeated forever. So this qualifies as major, and stunning, progress.
Of course, Laver Cup isn’t just, or even mainly, about the final score. In its five editions, it has invented and occupied a middle ground between serious competition and personality-driven exhibition. The 2022 version blended the two perfectly, and showed the value of opening the sport up and letting us get to know its players in a way we never have before.
This time, that began with the Big 4. The early headlines, naturally, were about Federer’s retirement, and his final match—and cry session—with Nadal. But I thought Djokovic’s participation was also fitting and compelling. After all, he played 50 often-brilliant matches against Federer across 15 seasons.
Djokovic did his part as a player for Europe, winning a singles and doubles match on Saturday, before losing to Auger-Aliassime on Sunday. More memorable, to me, was his stint as a coach to Andy Murray. Djokovic was tactically astute, naturally, but he also understood what a coach’s bedside manner should be. He didn’t come on too strong, only offered his thoughts when asked, and didn’t clutter Murray’s mind with too many disparate suggestions.
Seeing the Big 4 in this mode, as normal people rather than mythic figures, reminded me of watching Peter Jackson’s 2021 documentary about another Big 4 in London, The Beatles: Get Back. To hear John Lennon and Paul McCartney casually reminisce about making Sgt. Pepper and playing at the Star Club in Hamburg was a little like hearing Federer and Nadal turn around and ask Djokovic for some input on their Friday doubles match.
“Novak, I feel like we can’t be afraid to hit the ball,” Federer said to Djokovic, and Djokovic agreed. There was something mind-boggling to me about seeing the Swiss and the Serb, who had defined tennis for so long with their classic Grand Slam finals—including one of the best ever, at Wimbledon in 2019—sounding exactly like you and me and every other person in the world when we talk to each other. Theoretically, I know there’s a regular human beneath every superhuman performer; but it’s still jarring, in a good way, to be reminded of it again.
The first part of the weekend was Laver Cup as exhibition, and it was all about the past. By Sunday, though, the competition was on, and it was all about the future. The shift from Team Europe to Team World began with Taylor Fritz’s close win, 10-8 in a match tiebreaker, over Cam Norrie on Saturday. It continued with wins by Auger-Aliassime and Tiafoe that were equal parts surprising and spectacular.
The Canadian and the American had started slowly in singles on Saturday. FAA lost to Matteo Berrettini in three sets, and Tiafoe was drummed off the court by Djokovic in straights. But on Sunday they settled down, gradually gained in confidence, and showed what they’re capable of—and should be capable of in the future.
Auger-Aliassime outplayed Djokovic on a hard court, which is one of the game’s toughest tasks. He was the aggressor and the more proactive player, and he didn’t panic after giving back an early service break in the second set. Tiafoe’s road to victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas was more perilous and thrilling—Laver Cup at its best. He saved four match points, and squeaked his way through two tight and exciting tiebreakers. As he had at the US Open, Tiafoe showed a newfound knack for finding his way through a close match against a quality opponent. He’s always been a showman, but now he has the substance to back up the flash.
Where does Laver Cup go from here? I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the last we see of any of the Big 4 as players in this event. But with Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev possibly joining for Europe, and Nick Kyrgios rejoining for World, there are suitable replacements waiting in the wings. Laver Cup may be the best place for fans to get to know the new No. 1, Alcaraz, a little better.
The event has also shown itself to be an ideal retirement venue. Could we see Nadal repeat Federer’s sentimental send-off in a couple of years? You wouldn’t mind seeing them crying in each other’s arms one more time, would you?