Chris Bowers assesses the field for the fifth edition of the Laver Cup in London.
The last high-profile match Caspar Ruud played was for the US Open title and the world No 1 ranking in a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. His next match opens the 2022 Laver Cup in a packed O2 Arena in London.
The new world No 2, one of this year’s breakthrough players, kicks off the fifth edition of the global team competition at 13.00 London time against the big-hitting American Jack Sock, before Diego Schwartzman attempts to counter the power of Stefanos Tsitsipas, and the former world No 1 Andy Murray faces the speedy Alex de Minaur. Sock then teams up with another of the breakthrough stars of the recent US Open, Frances Tiafoe, in the eagerly awaited doubles against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Ruud, who won a Davis Cup match against India in Norway last week, is a clear favorite against the 29-year-old Sock, whose ranking has slipped to 128; in fact the last singles match Sock won was in the first week of August when he beat David Goffin in Washington. But Sock and Ruud have never played before, and the American has proved in the past that form on the tour is no guarantee of form in team competitions.
Sock has often saved his best for the Laver Cup. His last singles was a 6-1, 7-6 win over Fabio Fognini in 2019, and in the inaugural staging of the competition in Prague in 2017, he pushed Nadal to the limit, losing on an 11-9 tiebreak. He has also won seven of his nine Laver Cup double rubbers, and with his heavy topspin on the forehand – at times heavier than Nadal’s, measured in rotations per minute – the 126-place gulf in rankings may be made to look silly if Sock gets into the opening match.
The second of Friday’s four matches is the closest in terms of ranking positions, when world No. 6 Tsitsipas takes on the 17th-ranked Schwartzman. The two will play for the fourth time this year and the sixth time in all, with the Greek holding a 3-2 lead. Two of this year’s matches went the full distance, and Schwartzman won their only match on indoor hard court back in 2017 in Antwerp.
Perhaps the most eagerly awaited contest for the home fans sees the twice Wimbledon champion Murray return to the scene of one of his greatest triumphs. His second Wimbledon title came in 2016, which enabled him to arrive at London’s O2 Arena, then the home of the year-ending ATP Finals, with the chance of ending the year as world No 1. That tournament ended with Murray beating Novak Djokovic in the final in what was a straight eliminator for the year-end top spot.
Yet it proved to be his last match at The O2, as his hip gave way badly the following year, culminating in surgery in 2019 that involved having a metal pin implanted. The fact that he’s playing at all is remarkable, and his recent run to the third round of the US Open has cemented his place in the world’s top 50 (he’s currently 43).
However, Murray will need all the home support he can get. He concedes 21 ranking places going into his Laver Cup night session match against Alex de Minaur, the Australian won their only previous meeting – albeit in pre-pandemic times three years ago in Zhuhai – and de Minaur has been in good form on the American hard courts, winning the title in Atlanta and matching Murray’s third round at the US Open.
With Team Europe boasting four of the greatest players in the history of tennis – three of whom play on the opening day – Team World may be happy to pick up just one win. Yet John McEnroe’s squad has a realistic chance in all four of Friday’s rubbers.
While it will be an upset if Sock beats Ruud, it wouldn’t be a complete surprise. Tsitsipas-Schwartzman is a clear 50:50, and Team World has the edge going into the Murray-de Minaur match. The joker in the pack is the doubles, where Federer and Nadal are a class act and sentimental favorites, but Sock is a quality doubles player with 17 titles including three men’s doubles majors, so he and the in-form Tiafoe may prove too much for the European legends.
As the cliché goes, there really is all to play for.