Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Why is it so hard to know what the point of the Laver Cup is?

Europe’s likely play at the Laver Cup, which began today in Antwerp, is a curious mix of humor and disappointment. The event pits superstar players at the pinnacle of their profession in a dress-up contest with one more ordinary player, usually the person with the lowest-ranking.

That’s not what the event is about. Players are paired based on their position, not their nationality. Even then, it’s an exercise in a foregone conclusion. The best team wins.

Unlike other pro sports, one does not go to the Laver Cup for the quality of the match play, which is usually sort of awkward. The event is all about fanfare. Nick Kypreos, the host and a British radio star, doesn’t hold back: “It’s time for a little British pride, for the women to prove they can win the little thing called the world of tennis.”

The events are worth $16 million over two years and sponsors include HSBC, Carlton Glass, and Dexia. Most sponsors would rather say no. French Daily La Croix, reporting on the event from Antwerp, is unafraid to report, “Europe is not ready yet for the Laver Cup.”

My husband and I took our two young sons to the Laver Cup, and the event gave them something to look forward to and something to laugh at. With no Davis Cup qualifiers this year, it’s a key step in Europe’s attempt to reclaim men’s tennis. The showdown has lofty ambitions: to draw more men to the sport and create a wider appeal.

Yet it is sometimes hard to know what the point of the spectacle is, especially compared to other, more meaningful men’s matches. Why did the Italians (the team had to defend its 3-1 first-round loss to Croatia last year) choose Fabio Fognini, a player often mocked on Twitter, or Sam Querrey, whose results are so mediocre that he almost never makes it past the third round of Wimbledon?

Scott Piercy, who plays with John Isner, has become the nominal big news here because his five-year-old daughter and nearly everyone else here can name each and every one of his balls. Fans show up to cheer their biggest loser in an unusual fashion: before the match they are allowed to toss his spare tennis balls from the stands and, from the moment Isner loses, the announcer cheers each one, shouting, “THREE AT 10, TWO AT 12.” Pérez Garcia, whose record is so terrible she hardly makes it to the third round at any tournament, stands 5’7″. He weighs just 105 pounds, allowing spectators to wear pink size 12 sneakers in support.

It’s an oddity, to say the least. At a time when tennis is becoming more inclusive, Europe’s greatest star is a neo-lesbian. Surprisingly, the players have taken their lumps, gladly. A banner at the opening ceremony read, “Die Matchte In Litem”—German for, “it’s about time.”

The opposition here includes Andrey Rublev, who is getting good but has no real chance of winning. (Though he goes into the match with his parents here in Belgium this weekend.) Unsurprisingly, the contest is overshadowed by a press conference with Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber, played on Sunday. She is European and meets Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic in the final.

Another story about the event has made the headlines: the North Americans were consulted on the choice of teams. No small irony, then, that American Jack Sock, who had wanted to play with his fiancee—sportswriter Brooke Axtell—will play with his brother, Taylor.

Europe won’t have it easy at the Laver Cup. If men’s tennis is good enough for sportswriters, surely it’s good enough for fans.

Latest article