Novak Djokovic made quite the impact on his Laver Cup debut for Team Europe, playing his part in a thrilling doubles contest despite losing his usual pinpoint accuracy in the opening moments.
Teaming up with Roger Federer for the first time, the Wimbledon and US Open champion accidentally drilled a forehand into his unexpecting partner’s back during the third game.
It prompted fulsome apologies and smiles all around, before the Serb himself got a taste of the dangerous side of doubles when he took a forehand in the chest from Jack Sock moments later.
“I apologized right away, because it didn’t look that great,” said Djokovic. “But I guess I got my karma back. Jack just checked me straight to the heart, you know.
“No, it was a lot of fun. I want to thank Roger in this way, as well, for playing with me.
”It was a great experience. I loved it. I was looking forward to it. Obviously I wanted to win as much as Roger did.”
In the end, the combination of two all-time great singles players came up just short in a match tiebreaker against Sock and Kevin Anderson, but that might not be the last we see of this new partnership.
“We wanted to go down as a 1-0 team maybe if we never play again together so this was disappointing, of course,” said Federer. “We have to play again,” said Djokovic. “Yeah, absolutely,” responded Federer.
‘I have never felt an atmosphere like that’
Team Europe’s impressive start included debut wins for Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin in the Day 1 singles matches, and both men were taken aback by the whole experience.
Goffin has helped his Belgium team to two Davis Cup finals but still found it difficult to remember playing in a better atmosphere than Friday night at the United Center wearing European blue.
“Never. It’s the first time for me,” said Goffin after his thrilling win over Diego Schwartzman.
“Maybe in Davis Cup final in Lille, in France last year, was also like 25,000 [people]. But at the end of [Friday’s] kind of match, it was just amazing, yeah.
I have never felt an atmosphere like that – David Goffin
“I have never felt an atmosphere like that. It was just amazing, amazing match, amazing shots, amazing – I just enjoyed every moment tonight.”
Dimitrov had set his team on their way to a successful opening day with victory over Frances Tiafoe, and the Bulgarian was then a leading member of the Team Europe cheer squad.
“It’s nothing crazy,” he said. “It’s just keeping good energy, keep on the same line, things like that that are really keeping me into that head space and obviously was one of the first times that I felt like this.
“You know, going out there and just having guys high-fiving you on every changeover, and you can actually hear them talking and things like that.
“I really enjoyed the whole atmosphere around it. I think that itself helps you for your energy to boost up and of course play better tennis.”
The sheer weight of experience and Grand Slam titles on the blue bench might intimidate some players but Goffin could only take inspiration from his illustrious teammates.
“You cannot imagine how it is,” he said. “You have Bjorn Borg on your bench, and you have Roger telling you some advice. It’s like a dream.
“And then you have Novak. You have the team, Grigor, so many good players. I cannot describe that moment. I just try to enjoy. I just try to give everything for them, for the team.”
With their much-anticipated doubles debut out of the way, it is time for Federer and Djokovic to focus on what they do best and earn some singles points for their team on Saturday.
And just in case Team World are hoping some lasting damage has been done, there is little chance that a defeat on Day 1 is something Djokovic will carry into Day 2, according to his new teammate.
For me, he’s got a winner mentality – Roger Federer
“For me, he’s got a winner mentality,” Federer said when asked what he had learned about his great rival from being on the same side of the net.
“There is no panic. Doesn’t matter the score. If you’re up and down, and we were up and down today, I see the same Novak.
“It’s like, okay, let’s dig ourselves out of this hole. Let’s go if you are in the lead. There was just no sense of panic. It’s just like, go through point-for-point mentality, and I think that’s what champions do very well, and Novak is obviously one of them.”
Does this mean the intensity levels will dip the next time the two face each other across the net?
“I think the rivalry will remain strong,” added Federer. “I want to beat Novak next time I play him and I think vice versa, too.
“You want to beat the best, and that’s why I think we are both still on tour.”