The Day the World Won

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons 

First came the biggest, most poignant farewell in tennis history. Period. 

Then came the biggest upset in tennis history. Period.

This was quite the weekend.

Roger Federer retired in the wee hours just after midnight on Saturday. There was an outpouring of emotion like never before. The departure of the game’s most wonderful player brought a profound sense of appreciation for both the man and his sport. 

“It’s an honor to be a Roger Federer fan,” declared one sign in the stands. 

Roger wept, his family wept, Nadal wept – everyone wept. 

In one of the most extraordinary scenes in tennis history, teary Roger and Rafa held hands on the bench. Roger was tossed in the air by his appreciative teammates and his foes. Novak Djokovic said it was one of the most wonderful moments of his life to see Federer hug his wife, twin daughters and twin sons. 

Humphrey Bogart once said in Casablanca, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” And amidst all the emotion, the matter of who was going to win the 2022 Laver Cup certainly didn’t seem to amount to a hill of beans. 

Then again, Saturday morning, when tennis finally settled down, the scoreboard showed a shocking result. After Jack Sock and Frances Tiafoe stunned Roger and Rafa in the opening doubles match, the competition was even at 2-2. The Laver Cup, a relative newcomer to the scene, is filled with brilliant innovations, but it has long had to deal with its Achilles heel: Team Europe has had far better players than Team World.

Last year Team Europe punished Team World in Boston, 14-1. Team World were beginning to feel a bit like the tennis version of the Washington Generals who always lost to the Harlem Globetrotters. Worse yet, this year Team Europe stacked the deck with a tennis Dream Team like no other. Roger, Rafa, Djokovic and Andy Murray together had collected 66 Slams. The entire Team World didn’t have any. Plus Nick Kyrgios, arguably the best non-European player in the world, was back home on his Australian couch. 

But Team World did have a scrappy, fun-loving and talented band of undaunted brothers who embraced their role as villains. Plus, they had their captain, the spitfire John McEnroe, who snarls at defeat. His closest friend, the late Vitas Gerulaitis, after losing to Jimmy Connors 16 straight times, offered tennis’s most defiant cry: “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row!” 

In London, McEnroe’s mantra was, “Enough is enough.”We will not lose five Laver Cups in a row. But, later on Saturday, Djokovic and Matteo Berrettini brought logic and reason back to the Laver Cup battle. As if to avenge Federer’s loss, Team Europe surged to a commanding 8-4 lead, and seemed poised to again lift the Laver Cup. They would only have to win one of Sunday’s four matches.

But then the North American duo of Felix Auger-Alissime and Jack Sock took it to Berrettini and hometown hero Andy Murray 2-6, 6-3, 10-8. There was still hope for the World. Still, Felix Auger-Aliassime would have to score his first ever-win over Novak, who hadn’t lost since the French Open. 

No problem. The clutch Canadian unleashed 13 aces and blasted 39 winners to score a stunning 6-3, 7-6(3) win over the Serb. Thanks to Felix’s heroic back-to-back wins, Team World suddenly had a 10-8 lead. Now if world No. 19 Frances Tiafoe could somehow score a shocking upset over No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas, Team World would win. 

But the Greek crushed Big Foe 6-1 in the opening set. Then again, Tiafoe, who’d just reached the US Open semifinals, is a player apart.

Vesa Ponkka, the president of Maryland’s JTCC, once said of Frances, “He is hungry…His love of the game is so deep and so pure. Some players love winning. Some players love money. Some players love traveling. He loves everything about this game. He loves even the smell of the new balls. He loves how the ball sounds on the strings. He loves these things that actually are much more important than money…It’s just that tennis was his best friend, and he takes care of his best friend.”

As he used his speed, power and athleticism to get back in the match, Tiafoe managed to get many in London’s O2 Arena to back him. After one key shot, he shouted to the delighted Team World bench, “I love this f–king s–t!.” In contrast, on the Team Euro bench, Federer, Djokovic and Murray all looked like glum spectators, as Tiafoe did his charismatic magic.

Foe offered the most delicate of backhand volleys to win a marathon second-set tiebreak 13-11, and force a match tiebreak.

At 3-3, Tsitsipas hit a fabulous dropshot that surely would have given him the lead. But there’s been little certainty this year in London. 

Tiafoe surged into an eight-step sprint and flicked an astonishing crosscourt winner. “Gravity-wise,” said Martina Navratliova, “that should have been impossible. Everybody’s jaw dropped.” Frances hammed it up, shrugging his shoulders as if to say, “no big deal.”

Tiafoe raced to an 8-4 tiebreak lead. But the determined Greek with a flowing backhand counterattacked. But when a Tsitsipas forehand dropped into the net, Tiafoe dropped to the London court. His elated teammates in red buried him in a jubilant pile of gleeful abandon.

To the delight of Team World’s Gen-Z players, McEnroe offered a not-at-all-dorky celebration dance. Listen up, everyone: enough had at last been enough. Tiafoe scored an epic 1-6, 7-6(11), 10-8 win.

They say, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Well, today in England, all of the ATP’s best men and all of its most hallowed heroes – Roger, Rafa, Nole, and Murray – could not subdue a bold ban of fearless global kids. It was a nightmare for Europe’s Dream Team. Team World scored its first-ever win, 13-8.

But how? Auger-Aliiasime, who was on fire in his two matches, was playing the best ball of his career. And the streaking Tiafoe, who has won 12 straight tiebreaks and has recent wins over Diego Schwartzman, Nadal, Andrey Rublev, Roger and Rafa in doubles, and Tsitsipas said, “It looks like I’ve got that clutch gene right now. The last few times [I’ve played] I’ve been playing in packed stadiums and getting the crowd on my side. I feel like being a kid out there and playing the game I love. 

“I’m just happy I’m going to get to hold the Laver Cup Trophy. That’s the only thing that really matters. My teammates tell me to have as much fun as I can. [I like it] when it becomes a circus…and I’m using the crowd and acting like a little kid.”

But today Tiafoe was far more than a little kid. Big Foe was the big hero in the biggest tennis upset ever. In London town, his energized cadre of upstarts shouted loud, “So sorry, Roger, but sometimes enough is enough.”

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