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Djokovic, Berrettini masterclass gives Team Europe an 8-4 lead


A sparkling evening for Novak Djokovic has taken Team Europe to within two wins of retaining the Laver Cup going into the final day of the three-day competition.

Djokovic posted one of his most impressive performances of the year to beat Frances Tiafoe 6-1 6-3 in the singles, and after just 20 minutes’ turnaround he returned to the court to partner Matteo Berrettini to victory over Alex de Minaur and Jack Sock 7-5 6-2 in a match that could prove crucial to the weekend’s outcome.

With Sunday’s four rubbers counting for three points each, Europe’s 8-4 lead is not impregnable, but it does mean that Team World has to win three of the four remaining matches to prevent the Europeans from lifting the Laver Cup for a fifth consecutive time.

He may have been off the tour for the past 11 weeks, but Djokovic picked up where he left off in the Wimbledon final, delivering a masterclass in beating Tiafoe in just 72 minutes. He looked extremely sharp from the very first point, and served superbly – he dropped just seven points in eight service games, all of them in the second set. It looked as if he had never been away.

It was as if the Serb wanted to make an emphatic statement to the tennis tour. He began the year at the top of the rankings, but has missed two of the four Grand Slam tournaments this year despite being fully fit and a frontline favorite. His decision not to take a Covid-19 vaccine has come at a personal cost, but now back on the tour after being denied entry to America for the US Open, there was a subliminal message of “Don’t count me out” about his impressive display.

From the first two points it was clear Djokovic was striking the ball beautifully and moving gracefully from side to side and from the back of the court to the net. It took a stunning backhand pass from Tiafoe in the second game to notch up his first point, which itself was a warning about how difficult Djokovic would be to dislodge.

Novak Djokovic exhibits his formidable athleticism in a flawless Saturday night display.

Tiafoe held his first service game, but lost his next three as Djokovic won the first set in 23 minutes having won all 16 points on his own serve. He continued the streak to 18 before Tiafoe finally won one. The American had his sole break point of the match in that game, but he was already behind, and when Djokovic staved off the threat to hold for 3-1, Tiafoe became visibly demoralized.

To have any chance, Tiafoe needed to serve well, and too many first serves went begging on big points. But the way Djokovic was playing it’s hard to see how Tiafoe could have done anything to change the destiny of the match, and Djokovic sealed victory by breaking Tiafoe for the fourth time in eight service games. The only thing that went wrong for Djokovic was an attempted “tweener” trick shot that misfired so badly that he waved disgustedly at himself.

“I’m really glad to continue the run,” Djokovic told the crowd, referring to his last match at Wimbledon. “I played a pretty decent match, I was seeing the ball well. It was a really emotional day yesterday, and it wasn’t easy to start up the engine today, but I’m very pleased with the way I played.”

Djokovic continued his great form into the doubles. He and Berrettini had never teamed up before, but playing a front-and-back strategy that saw a lot of lateral movement at both the net and the back of the court, they looked an accomplished pair. Djokovic was the architect of the victory, but Berrettini was rock solid on his defensive volleys and added extra pep on the serve.

Talking Italian among themselves, as Djokovic is fluent in what’s his third language, the European pair could have won more easily than they did. They had a set point at 5-2 in the first, but eventually won it with a breathtaking backhand half-volley flick from Djokovic that testified to his confidence and growing enjoyment of the match. With Sock playing well below his usual level, the American-Australian pairing was broken twice in the second set, as Sock fell to only his third defeat in 11 Laver Cup doubles in 81 minutes of play. “Everyone talks about Novak being away,” Sock said ruefully, “but there was no rust.”

Djokovic judged the mood just right in commenting to the crowd on Roger Federer’s emotional send-off in the small hours of Saturday morning. “It was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced,” he said, “and it was a privilege to be part of it. The moment I got really emotional was when I saw his kids tearing up, because I know the sacrifices the people closest to us make for us to play this game.”

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