GENEVA—Roger Federer had his hands over his eyes; Rafael Nadal said you needed a strong heart; nearly 18,000 people were proving they had very strong lungs as the tension reached a crescendo in the final stages of the Laver Cup.
For the second time in this three-year-old competition, it fell to the young German Alexander Zverev to hold on to the Cup for Europe, just as he had twelve months before in Chicago. But this was tighter, better and more dramatic.
After John Isner and Jack Sock had put the World into the lead 8-7 by beating Federer and Stefanos Tsitsipas in the opening rubber of the third day, Taylor Fritz suddenly found himself thrown into the action against Dominic Thiem when Nick Kyrgios pulled out injured. Unlike his more experienced opponent who looked nervous as he missed a string of shots off his usually immaculate backhand, Fritz grabbed his chance with aplomb, won the first set 7-5 and refused to be rattled when the Austrian took the second on the tie break, recovering to win the Super Breaker in style.
Suddenly the World’s lead was a daunting 11-7 which meant Europe had to win the last two rubbers. Step forward the man for the job—a job Federer had created for himself and, in a different sense, for his boyhood idol, Rod Laver who was lapping up every moment of this enthralling contest from the stands.
The previous day Federer had made a tentative start against Kyrios, dropping the first set. No sign of nerves this time against Isner. “Roger played just about the perfect match,” said his coach Ivan Ljubicic who was attending the Laver Cup for the first time. And so he did, winning 6-4, 7-6 against the mighty American server.
So with the score 11-10, it was winner take all for Zverev and the towering Canadian Milos Raonic. Both players had been struggling to find their best form in the previous months but Zverev drew on his previous year’s experience to settle down quicker and take the first set 6-4. But Raonic forced a single break in the second and so, after three days of drama and excitement on court and off, it was down to the Super Breaker.
Federer and Nadal led their young colleague off court for a ‘toilet’ break. But it was wasn’t that.
“Those two guys were screaming at me in the locker room, saying how this was how I could turn my season around,” said Zverev. “Without those guys I couldn’t have done it. This win is very special, especially playing in front of those guys and having them trust me to play the last match.”
The inspiration Zverev had gained from the faith the two greatest players in the world were showing him showed itself on the first point of the breaker. A flashing backhand cross court winner left Raonic stranded mid-court and with two errors from the Canadian on the 6th and 7th points, it enabled Zverev to establish a 5-2 lead. Despite a double fault—there had to be some nerves, right?—he was able to put it out of his head and produce another of those backhand cross-court passers. That was it. Zverev closed it out 10-4, fell on his back and waited for his delirious teammates to climb all over him.
The team’s reaction epitomized what had been evident on both benches throughout the weekend. World captain John McEnroe spoke of it afterwards. “We fought our hearts out and I’m very proud of them. We have great chemistry and energy but the energy in the crowd was incredible, I mean, for both sides. Obviously they were pulling for Team Europe but they inspired us as well.”
Kyrgios, reveling in the team format and bitterly disappointed he could not play his last match, showed the side of his character that gets buried by his antics which were absent here when he said, “In hindsight, it was probably a good thing I couldn’t play. Fritzy stepped up today. That’s probably one of the most special moments he’s going to remember for the rest of his career.”
Turning to Fritz, Kyrgios added, “I was super happy for you. It was amazing. It was one of the most special moments in my career watching a tennis match. Obviously the loss is tough but that moment was pretty special”
By now it has probably dawned on those who doubted the whole Laver Cup concept that this competition is pretty special. Tony Godsick, Federer’s agent who worked on the concept with Roger, was delighted at having pulled off an outstanding success for the third year in a row. “They have all been great but this was the best so far because the tennis was much more competitive than in Prague or Chicago. Against the odds Team World were not that far away from an upset. On to Boston.”
Godsick was referring to the decision to play the 4th edition in Boston next September. “There is a great venue there and we didn’t want the guys to have travel too far from New York with the US Open being a week later than usual because of the Olympics.”
So the Laver Cup, which is starting to create its own traditions, will rub shoulders with history. It was 119 years ago that Dwight Davis, a Harvard student, conceived an idea for a team competition and it worked. Three years ago Federer put his idea into practice and it, too, has worked although longevity is open to question.
However, there is no denying that the Laver Cup has brought something unique and fresh to the game which three sets of fans in the Czech Republic, the United States and Switzerland have found exhilarating. The key factor, perhaps, has been the amazing cast of characters encompassing some of the greatest players the game has ever seen. All of them have bought into the idea, no one more so than the man who emerged as the star of the show, as much off court as on it. Rafa, if he ever wants to take on the role, could obviously make a great coach. Working in tandem with Roger—who was singing his praises—or by himself, he was constantly stepping in to offer shrewd tactical advice, urging and cajoling.
“The Laver Cup is special, no? So much energy, so good for the game,” said Nadal. “I look forward to being in Boston.”