Laver Cup, the hybrid of serious fun for tennis pros

PRAGUE • After a clean sweep of the first-day singles matches by Team Europe on Friday, "exhibition" was still a dirty word at the Laver Cup. After all, Roger Federer, his management group and the other investors in this new competition have big, long-term plans for the tennis event.

They want gravitas with their ground strokes, and do not want this three-day duel between teams representing Europe and the rest of the world to be just another hit-and-chuckle payday for the stars. No matter that the Laver Cup awards no ranking points and has been created outside the structure of the regular men's tour.

Federer visibly bristled last week when asked whether this was an exhibition or something more meaningful. Rafael Nadal said he woke up on Thursday at 4am to get ready to practise. "An exhibition match - I don't practise before an exhibition match normally, no?" he said.

But what it really felt like on opening Friday in Prague's O2 Arena was an intriguing hybrid.

Both squads were clearly on task from the start: The body language betrayed the tension. Team World's captain, John McEnroe, crossed and uncrossed his arms like a college senior at his first job interview.

There was electricity in the indoor air and not only of the sort that made the European captain Bjorn Borg's now-grey locks levitate roofward as he posed on court in front of the trophy.

The rallies and results mattered to a surprising degree. So, even as the favoured European team took a 3-0 lead after winning all three of the opening singles matches, this was no procession.

Every set of singles on Friday went to a tie-breaker, which would have made one wonder if it was written into the lucrative contracts if not for the intensity of the exchanges and expressions, as Marin Cilic beat Frances Tiafoe 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-0) and Dominic Thiem rallied to defeat John Isner 6-7 (15-17), 7-6 (7-2) and finally 10-7 in a third-set match tie breaker. Alexander Zverev then held off Denis Shapovalov 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-5).

"People were questioning if this is going to be an exhibition, but for none of us this is exhibition," Cilic said. "We are very much into it."

Australian Nick Kyrgios and American Jack Sock took down Nadal and Tomas Berdych 6-3, 6-7 (7-9), 10-7 in the doubles to salvage a point.

NYTIMES, REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 24, 2017, with the headline 'Laver Cup, the hybrid of serious fun for tennis pros'. Print Edition | Subscribe