On Tennis: An Exhibition? Yes. Of Talent, and Tension, and Tiebreakers.

By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY

PRAGUE — After a clean sweep of the first-day singles matches by Team Europe on Friday, “exhibition” was still a dirty word at the Laver Cup.

After all, Roger Federer and his management group and the other investors in this new competition have big, long-term plans for the event.

They want gravitas with their groundstrokes, and do not want this three-day duel between a team representing Europe and a team representing the rest of the world to be just another hit-and-chuckle payday for the stars. No matter that the Laver Cup awards no ranking points and has been created outside the structure of the regular men’s tour.

Federer visibly bristled this week when asked whether this was an exhibition or something more meaningful. Rafael Nadal said he woke up on Thursday at 4 a.m. to get ready to practice. “An exhibition match — I don’t practice before an exhibition match normally, no?” he explained in Nadalese.

But what it really felt like on opening day (and night) in Prague’s O2 Arena on Friday was an intriguing hybrid.

Both squads were clearly on task from the start: The body language betrayed the tension. Team World’s captain, John McEnroe, crossed and uncrossed his arms like a college senior at his first job interview. Frances Tiafoe, the American teenager who played for Team World in the opening match against Marin Cilic, could not help letting his shoulders slump after a crucial backhand approach smacked into the net.

There was electricity in the indoor air and not only of the sort that made the European captain Bjorn Borg’s now gray locks levitate roofward as he posed on court in front of the trophy.

The rallies and results mattered, mattered to a surprising degree for an event with no history. So even as the favored European team took a 3-0 lead after winning all three of the opening singles matches, this was no processional.

Every set of singles on Friday went to a tiebreaker, which would have made one wonder if it was written into the lucrative contracts if not for the intensity of the exchanges and expressions as Cilic beat Tiafoe, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (0), and Dominic Thiem rallied to defeat John Isner, 6-7 (15), 7-6 (2), and finally 10-7 in a third-set match tiebreaker. Alexander Zverev then held off Denis Shapovalov, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5).

“People were questioning if this is going to be an exhibition, but for none of us this is exhibition,” Cilic said. “We are very much into it. We prepared really well.”

And yet there were also moments that made it clear this was not quite elite tennis as usual: plenty of chuckles in fact, most of them generated by Team World.

“They are much younger than us,” said Nadal, now 31, with a wink.

In Davis Cup, the 117-year-old men’s team competition that remains the market leader, the players not involved in the match typically sit in the front row of the stands directly behind the court. But in Prague, the teams are sitting on couches on adjacent platforms that look down on the action, separated only by the narrow walkway leading to the locker room.

This has some drawbacks. It puts the team cheering section a little farther from the action and also makes it glaringly apparent when all the seats in the player area are not full. But it does give the noncombatants plenty of room to stretch their limbs as they watch, man-cave style, from the couch. Or in the case of Nick Kyrgios, the rambunctious Australian, plenty of room to dive forward and slide on his chest, volleyball style, after Isner, his fellow member of Team World, hit an outrageously good forehand to end an epic rally late in the first set against Thiem.

While Kyrgios remained prone, his teammate Jack Sock dropped to the floor next to him and spun around on his back.

We were clearly a long way from Wimbledon, just as we remained when Kyrgios & Co. later led the crowd in a wave and celebrated points won by Shapovalov in the second-set tiebreaker against Zverev by walking forward on their hands and reeling off a few push-ups each.

Just as we remained as Isner, no youngster himself at age 32, later choreographed a pantomime volleyball match that included a spike sans ball as Sock and Kyrgios were on their way to saving some face for Team World. With Sock diving to keep rallies alive and Kyrgios slamming serves and hitting half volleys between his legs, they narrowed the overall score to 3-1 by beating Nadal and Tomas Berdych in the day’s closing doubles match: 6-3, 6-7 (7) and 10-7 in the match tiebreaker.

The day’s celebrations were, to be sure, instant social media grist, but also refreshingly different.

“I saw the sliding and whatever, the push-ups that they did,” Zverev said. “I had a smile on my face a little bit. They are all great guys. Nick is an entertainer, we all know that. The Americans, Jack and John, are great guys. They are having fun.”

The Europeans were, in comparison, much more subdued. But Zverev, still just 20, had a little diversion of his own in the midst of his match after the big screen above the court showed Federer, generating loud applause from the crowd.

Zverev, who was preparing to serve, grinned and took a quick break and bantered with a fan, pointing in Federer’s direction.

Zverev then coolly held serve on the next point with a big delivery that Shapovalov, not for the first or last time, could not handle.

“It was a fun moment with the crowd, and then it was back to serious,” Zverev said. “I think both of us, we didn’t joke around or anything like that. It was a full-on serious match.”

Federer was not just a distraction. He was also a consultant, coming onto the court on one changeover to share thoughts on tactics with Zverev and Borg; just as he had done with Thiem and Borg earlier in the day. The Laver Cup is determined to be different: from the black court, which actually looks closer to dark gray, to the tiny cameras lodged in the net to its unconventional format.

Matches are worth 2 points on Saturday and 3 points on Sunday. The Europeans, as the home team, are allowed to see the Team World lineup for Saturday before they choose their own and can thus cherry-pick the matchups. Team World will get the same right for Sunday.

“We know who we’re playing, but we can’t tell you yet,” said Nadal, who is expected to play singles for Europe on Saturday along with Federer and Berdych. Nadal could also play doubles, for the first time in earnest with Federer.

They have played together once before: in a charity match in Australia in 2011. But that was an exhibition, and no matter how others might define that term in tennis, it is not the term in vogue here at the Laver Cup.

“That is not the spirit of this competition,” Nadal said. “You could see it in all the matches today.”

How it looked on the sideline was another matter.