Preview: Young Guns Shelton, Fils Get Things Started on Day 1
For the first time in the six-year history of the competition, Team World will set out in defense of a Laver Cup title, having finally broken Team Europe’s stranglehold last year in London, 13-8.
Captain John McEnroe will do so with a new-look lineup that features a healthy mix of vets and newbies. Americans Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz, and host-nation favorites Felix Auger-Aliassime and alternate Milos Raonic are back, but Team World also features debutants in Argentine Francisco Cerundolo, and Tommy Paul and Ben Shelton of the United States.
Team Europe Captain Bjorn Borg is in a similar position. Back on board are Andrey Rublev and Casper Ruud. But the Swede will also call on first-timers Hubert Hurkacz, Gael Monfils, teen Arthur Fils and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.
Match 1: Arthur Fils (Team Europe) vs. Ben Shelton (Team World)
At 19, the fast-rising Fils is the youngest player on either side. Who better to kick off the three-day showdown than the Frenchman? The world No. 44 will open the action against none other than the 20-year-old Shelton, who is coming off the biggest result of his career at the US Open. The NCAA singles titlist at the University of Florida in 2022, Shelton punched his way through to his first-ever major semifinal in New York, stunning Laver Cup teammates Paul and Tiafoe along the way. Expect some physical play from both, and energy to spare. Rogers Arena is sure to be jumping.
“Coming into this event, I thought I was going to be the rookie who never played before, probably playing against someone with a lot of experience playing in this type of situation. Then I end up playing someone who’s younger than me,” said Shelton with a smile. “I’m looking forward to it. I think it’ll be a great match.”
Match 2: Alejandro Davidovich Fokina (Team Europe) vs. Francisco Cerundolo (Team World)
We’re in for another first-time encounter when the Spaniard Davidovich Fokina takes on Cerundolo. No. 25 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, Davidovich Fokina can be a frustrating opponent. Just ask Ruud, Holger Rune or Alexander Zverev, all of whom have suffered losses at his hands in 2023. But the 21st-ranked Cerundolo is a tough out, too, having captured his maiden ATP title this summer on grass in Eastbourne via a 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 dismissal of Paul.
“I’m supper excited. I’m going to be out there fighting for this team,” said the 25-year-old Cerundolo, the first to represent his homeland in Laver Cup play since Diego Schwartzman. “It’s going to be a tough match. Fokina is a great player. I’ll just focus on my game and try to get the win.”
Match 3: Gael Monfils (Team Europe) vs. Felix Auger-Aliassime (Team World)
You can guess who the crowd will be supporting on Friday when the Montreal native Auger-Aliassime takes the court against the veteran Monfils. Long a crowd favorite in Canada, the 23-year-old hopes to use the Laver Cup as a way to reset what has been, for his standards, a tough year. The world No. 14 suffered three opening-round defeats at the majors, a Round-of-16 showing at the Australian the lone exception. Monfils, 37, prevailed in their only previous encounter three years ago in the Rotterdam final, 6-2, 6-4. But Auger-Aliassime is a far different, far more developed player today, and will take the court with plenty of incentive to add to the bottom line.
“He was the quickest player I’d ever played against,” said Auger-Aliassime of his veteran opponent. “His defensive skills, his court coverage, was something that I hadn’t seen before, so I know what to expect tomorrow. That’s his big quality, still today at his age, at the latter stages of his career, is his court coverage, just how he’s able to make you play that extra ball.”
Does FAA feel any extra pressure playing on home turf in Canada?
“No,” he insisted. “We’re here to compete. We want to win. Having the home crowd, having people with us to do that is going to be great. I had a great experience winning last year, but it was ‘away’, so to speak. It would be nice to do it at home, to celebrate with the people here.”
What is Captain McEnroe expecting to see from his young charge?
“His passion, his energy, his joie de vivre,” said the Hall of Famer, now 64. “That’s what I believe separates Felix from most other players. We all know how talented he is, his ability. He’s just got to show it, express himself and feel good about it. It’s a great matchup.”
Asked if he was coming for Felix on Friday, Monfils shot back: “He’s coming for me.”
Match 4: Andrey Rublev/Arthur Fils (Team Europe) vs. Frances Tiafoe/Tommy Paul (Team World)
Good pals Tiafoe and Paul will go head-to-head with the first-time pairing of Fils and Rublev for the all-important doubles point on Day 1. “Anytime I’m on the court with Foe, it’s normally high-level,” said Paul. “Hopefully, we can get out there and play our best tennis and put some numbers on the board.”
“If [Arthur] will play the same way he played in practice, I think we have a good chance,” countered Rublev.