Rafa and Roger to combine in first-ever doubles pairing
So now we know – Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, the world No.1 and No.2, will join forces on a doubles court for the first time on day two of the Laver Cup, facing American duo Sam Querrey and Jack Sock with two crucial points on the line ahead of Sunday’s finale.
Roger and Rafa on the same side of the net. It’s the partnership that fans – and the players themselves – have wanted to see since the Laver Cup format was first conceived. Can it live up to the hype – or will the Americans spoil the party?
Nadal may have proven his ongoing doubles prowess in recent years with a gold medal at the Rio Olympics with fellow Spaniard Marc Lopez, but it is two years since Federer played a tour-level doubles match, and almost three since his last victory – in the 2014 Davis Cup final alongside Stan Wawrinka, as Switzerland claimed the title for the first time.
But like Nadal, he is an Olympic doubles gold medallist, triumphing at the Beijing Games in 2008, also with Wawrinka, and has eight doubles titles in all, compared to the Spaniard’s 11.
“I’ve played a lot against Rafa on so many occasions, in big matches,” Federer said ahead of the Laver Cup. “Finally, to have him on my side it’s a joy. We talked about playing doubles a long, long time ago – it never happened. There’s a lot of expectations and everybody thinks we’re going to win and play together…So we better make sure we focus on just playing good doubles, and if it works together at the same time, that’d be great.”
Tally up the doubles titles won by players in the two sides and Team Europe ranks ahead of Team World, 22 to 17. But selecting Team Europe’s best doubles partnerships is, for the most part, an exercise in hypothesis. Only two players in the six-man team have ever played together before – Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, who have a 1-2 record. Zverev won a doubles title this season alongside brother Mischa at Montpellier.
When it comes to existing partnerships, Team World comes out on top. Jack Sock and Nick Kyrgios had already played together prior to Friday night’s showdown with Rafael Nadal and Tomas Berdych, picking off such major-winning partnerships as Bob and Mike Bryan and Marcelo Melo and Ivan Dodig. Sock even has two doubles majors to his name, winning the gentlemen’s doubles at Wimbledon with Canada’s Vasek Pospisil in 2014 and the US Open mixed doubles title in 2011 with Melanie Oudin.
And McEnroe’s options don’t end there. Of the four doubles titles on John Isner’s resume, two were won with Sam Querrey and his latest, at the 2016 ATP Shanghai Masters, while partnering Sock. Indeed, Isner and Querrey have featured in five ATP doubles finals together, and Ssturday’s Sock-Querrey tandem is no first-time partnership either – the pair played together in San Jose back in 2012.
Then there’s the impact of the men on the bench. Borg may have ended his career with more singles titles at the Grand Slams than McEnroe, but the Team World captain claimed 17 majors in total – seven singles, nine in doubles and one mixed doubles – and was ranked No.1 in both singles and doubles, claiming an Open-era record 149 titles combined.
“He might have been a completely different player had he not played doubles,” McEnroe’s long-time doubles partner Peter Fleming, who played alongside the American in seven of his nine doubles major triumphs, said in 1992. “One of the things that made him such a great doubles player was that he was a great team player. He was into every point and he kept you prepared.”
Fleming and McEnroe were a study in complimentary contrasts – “He was left, I was right; I hit it hard, he had touch; I was tall, he was short – we worked so well together.” Can the same approach be applied to the two Laver Cup teams to glean potential partnerships for Sunday’s three-point doubles?
Both sides have had southpaws at their disposal – Team Europe has the world’s best in Nadal, who plays his second doubles match tonight, though if he is to feature for a third time it must be with a different partner to ensure that the side fields four different players in doubles. In Marin Cilic and Zverev, Borg certainly has rangey ball-strikers at his disposal.
On the other bench, McEnroe seems less likely to call on his fellow lefty, teenager Denis Shapovalov, with everything on the line. But Big Mac is not short of tall options – Isner and Querrey have proven before that they take some beating behind their booming serves. If Sock is to play again, he will have to partner someone other than Kyrgios and Querrey.
Tonight, though, all eyes will be fixed on ‘Fedal’, the iconic rivalry turned first-time partnership in Prague. Lefty and righty. Finesse and fire. Can Team World do anything to stop them? We can’t wait to see them try.