Roger Federer faced match point in what is called “super” or “champions” tie-break: first to ten rather than the seven points needed to close a set. It has been used mainly in ATP doubles tournaments as the third or “decider” set, but until the new Laver Cup was played last week it never was used in singles, when it was used quite often.
In a format most readily comparable to golf’s Ryder Cup you had six of the best European players up against six of the best from the rest of the world. So it did surprise that a decider was often required. Two of four matches went to a decider on Day One, three of four on Two, and in the course of these, as on Day Three, a majority of sets were going to the ordinary tiebreaks.
Day Three required no decider until the last match. A stunning two-set (tiebreak in second) win by John Isner over Rafael Nadal — never heretofore experienced — precipitated the unexpected opportunity for the World Team to catch up with the Euros, which would have forced still another innovation, the one-set doubles decider match.
For this to happen, the Worlds would have to beat Federer, the best player of the century, and on this mission their captain, John McEnroe, sent a young Australian named Nick Kyrgios. Federer beat him twice this year, in tournaments he went on to win (Indian Wells and Miami), but the mercurial Kyrgios beat him in 2015 at Madrid and earned high praise from him. If John Isner could stun Rafa Nadal, winner at the French and U.S. Opens this year, it was surely possible for Kyrgios to outplay the master.
This, in fact, seems to be the main theme of the Laver Cup and the logic behind its innovations. The system favors faster, shorter matches in which aggressive tactics are prized over endurance. The fast surface at Prague’s O2 arena, painted an austere charcoal (at least as seen on TV) did not suggest defensive play. The idea was to go and do the job, save energy because you could be called upon for another match, maybe the same day.
Isner had teamed with Jack Sock to beat Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych in the first Day Three match (with tiebreaks in both sets), launching the World comeback. For despite starting the day with a 3-9 deficit, the scoring system makes wins increasingly valuable day by day, so that each win on Day Three is worth three points. With two out of three wins before Federer-Kyrgios, the Worlds were at 9-12 and therefore within striking distance of a tie, as 13 points wins the cup.
Gimmicky? Perhaps; but at this level of play, no one noticed (even on TV), because the matches were almost all extremely close. Not only you always had a good chance of winning, but every win had a good chance of helping your team get to 13. Economists call this incentives (the quarter million purse per player on the winning side helped too); team players usually express this idea by asking who’s hungrier.
Kyrgios was certainly hungry. A mercurial player who appears fragile mentally as well as physically despite being built like a small forward or a first baseman, he has one of the most powerful and accurate serves on the tour. Add an athleticism to rival Gael Monfils’ and a shot-making ability to rival — well, to rival Federer’s; he has what it takes.
If he wants to use it. Which he did. Kyrgios prefers team events like the Davis Cup to players’ tournaments, where he drops his level of play when he feels discouraged or moody. Given a disposition toward rudeness and whining, the team atmosphere supports him and brings out his strengths.
He took the first set 6-4 and forced an overtime second-set tiebreak. Federer was generally in charge in the decider, but suddenly he found himself on the ropes, serving at 8-9 in the decider.
Federer has had a fantastic year, winning both Wimbledon and the Australian Open thanks to his capacity to keep adapting, physically and tactically. Against Kyrgios, defense would have been useless; he went all-out. Kyrgios did the same. They hit deep and aimed for the lines. Federer held his two serves, reversed the score: 10-9. Kyrgios went for yet one more high-risk play, moving in after a big serve to Federer’s backhand and pounding his serve-plus-one again toward the alley, presumably trying to force a backhand error or a ball he can put away. Instead, Federer stayed ice cold and pounded back and the Aussie lost his focus just long enough to net a fairly routine forehand. 11-9, set and match.
Well, it was a pleasure to see such sparkling tennis, and there was a first: a Federer-Nadal doubles team (they beat Jack Sock and Sam Querrey in a decider, 10-5). Bjorn Borg, captaining the Euros, was his old inscrutable self, unlike the excitable McEnroe, his old rival.
At the present, the Worlds would be better called the Anglosphere, since in addition to four Americans McEnroe had Kyrgios and the teenage Canadian phenom Denis Shapovalov. However, this was because Juan Mártin del Potro had to decline playing for World due to convalescence after a good season.
Which he may resume with some appearances during the Asia swing, the last before the end-of-year ATP Masters competitions in Paris and London (the WTA has its own versions of these). Too much tennis?
Roger Federer, whose idea this Cup was and who has a pretty persuasive record on the business side of things as well as on court, believes that additional to honoring Rod Laver (who was in attendance) and thus keeping alive the memory, the historical knowledge, that deepens the value of any human endeavor, his high-energy format will add to the mix his sport offers and thus contribute to the whole. The venue next year will be Chicago. Soldier Field? McCormick Convention Center? There are also two storied baseball stadiums, plus Stagg Field. The city is big-shouldered, it can embrace them all, World and Anglos and Euros, and give them a grand time.
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