Novak Djokovic returns to action after a two-month break, with back-to-back matches on the second day of the finely balanced Laver Cup 2022.
The last time Djokovic played a competitive match was in London, winning the Wimbledon title against Nick Kyrgios in July. The Serb then went on vacation with his family, hoping that by the time the US Open came round he’d be allowed to enter America. But the US government refused to admit anyone by air who had not taken a Covid-19 vaccine, and with Djokovic maintaining his wish not to be vaccinated, he was prevented from playing in New York.
The pent-up energy he has from more than two months off-court, therefore, gets released on the second evening of Laver Cup 2022 when Djokovic first faces the US Open semifinalist Frances Tiafoe, and then teams up with the man he beat in the 2021 Wimbledon final, Matteo Berrettini, for a doubles against Alex de Minaur and Jack Sock that will close the Saturday program.
In many ways, Tiafoe stepped into Djokovic’s shoes at Flushing Meadows. He beat Rafael Nadal in the fourth round, ending up in the semi-finals of a major for the first time. He comes into his match against Djokovic fresh from his doubles victory with Sock against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, a match in which they had to save a match point.
Djokovic and Tiafoe have played once before, that was in the second round of last year’s Australian Open when Djokovic won in four sets, but Tiafoe is a much more accomplished player now. His work with South African coach Wayne Ferreira has given him added steel, and he’s now in the world’s top 20 at 19th in the ATP rankings.
As for Berrettini, he has had a frustrating year. Having missed the clay season following hand surgery, he returned in great form on the grass, winning the tournaments in Stuttgart and London Queen’s Club, but then caught Covid on the eve of Wimbledon and his promising challenge ended before it had even begun. He reached the quarterfinals of the US Open but felt he underperformed against Casper Ruud.
Berrettini opens the Saturday program with his fifth match against Félix Auger-Aliassime, the Canadian who picked up his first career title this year. The two played at last year’s Laver Cup, the Italian winning on a match tiebreak, but Auger-Aliassime beat Berrettini on the hard courts of Cincinnati in August 2021, and with the pair just two ranking places apart, their match in London should be very close.
The same can be said for Cameron Norrie* and Taylor Fritz, who follow Auger-Aliassime and Berrettini. They have played each other 10 times and split them 5-5. Although Norrie is ranked 8th to Fritz’s 12th, on this year’s results they are neck-and-neck, with both in the running for a spot at the ATP Finals.
This match will not just be their 11th in total but their third this year, and all have come in team competition. Norrie won in the Davis Cup last week, while Fritz won at the ATP Cup in January. It will be their fourth match indoors, with Norrie having won two of the other three.
As for the doubles, any Team World pair with Jack Sock in it stands a very good chance of winning. Sock has played 10 Laver Cup doubles rubbers, and won eight of them, the most recent being yesterday’s win with Tiafoe against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Sock has never played with de Minaur at Laver Cup, and against Djokovic and Berrettini, the American is the one class doubles act who could swing the match Team World’s way.
With the overall standings at 2-2 after the opening day, the stakes are raised with two points for each of Saturday’s four matches. With all four rubbers being finely balanced, both teams will be keen to win at least two of them to give them maximum chance when Sunday’s four matches move to three-pointers.
*Cameron Norrie replaces Rafael Nadal, who withdrew for personal reasons.