The captains’ lineup: a game of cat and mouse?
Lavercup.com expert Chris Bowers speculates on the Captains’ picks ahead of today’s reveal of first day match-ups by Team World captain John McEnroe and Team Europe skipper Bjorn Borg.
How much can John McEnroe get into Bjorn Borg’s head? That’s the question that springs to mind in the hours leading up to the Laver Cup captains’ first picks today – the ones that will determine who faces who on the first-ever day of the competition.
With both legends having to pick three singles players and one doubles pair from their six-man teams, and present them blind to determine who faces who on Friday, the pressure is all on the American captain.
With Europe the favorites, McEnroe and his younger brother Patrick (vice captain) have to
second-guess where Borg will be putting his players, so Team World can have a realistic chance of winning at least one of the opening day’s points, if not two.
Given the form he’s been in over recent months, Rafael Nadal will be thought of as a banker for Europe, but where do the McEnroes think Borg will play the newly crowned US Open champion? If they reckon he will open the event – and that would be a great way for the Laver Cup’s history to start – the World may throw a sacrificial lamb into the first singles slot, in order to have greater chances of winning other matches.
Rankings-wise it’s a tall order for Team World but this is team tennis, and experience from Davis Cup, and Hopman Cup confirm that playing for a team can turn rankings on their head. Look at how many world number ones have lost in the final of the Davis Cup (Lleyton Hewitt, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, John McEnroe), beaten by lower-ranked players inspired to bring out their best when playing for an entity bigger than themselves.
McEnroe may well work backwards. With three singles players and one doubles team to select, he could decide first on the doubles team. His best pair will come from two of Sam Querrey, John Isner and Jack Sock.
Querrey and Isner have played a lot together, but Sock is a Grand Slam men’s doubles champion.
With Querrey the top-ranked singles player and in great form, he may be asked to play singles, leaving Sock and Isner in doubles, with the unpredictable Denis Shapovalov and Nick Kyrgios filling the other singles slots and Frances Tiafoe sitting on the bench.
For Borg and his vice-captain Thomas Enqvist, the dilemma is likely to be less trying to
second-guess the McEnroes and more who to play first. Given that this is the launch of an event already steeped in history by dint of carrying Rod Laver’s name, it would be highly fitting for either Nadal or Roger Federer to play the first match. But is that the best use of the best two players of 2017?
Europe’s biggest problem is that there is no obvious doubles team. Federer and Nadal are both Olympic doubles gold medallists, but have never played together other than in exhibition matches.
Marin Cilic, Alexander Zverev and Tomas Berdych have all played doubles in Davis Cup and lower-ranking tour events, but have seldom played with any of their teammates this weekend. And how much does Federer trust his movement after five patchy matches at the US Open?
Borg could well plump for Federer in doubles, alongside either Cilic or Zverev, with Nadal,
Dominic Thiem and the local boy Berdych as singles players. But in which order?
That’s the beauty of the Laver Cup – unless they’re telepathic, neither captain will know
what the other is planning, and can only guess. Then again, rankings and past head-to-heads may go out of the window when players find they’re playing for their teammates and not just themselves. So the announcement of the captains’ first picks at 1pm will be
fascinating – but even that won’t mean anything until the first ball is struck at the same time on Friday.
*Chris Bowers has reported on the global tennis circuit since the late 1980s and written numerous books on tennis.