The Hope That Kills

A look at Laver Cup 2021

There was a moment early on, in the second match of this year's edition of the Laver Cup, when it all still seemed possible.

Felix Auger-Aliassime, of Team World, serving for the first set at 6:3 in the tiebreak, cast a determined glance at Matteo Berrettini across the net. He bounced the ball a few times against the court's iconic black surface and tossed it high in the air. His eyes traced the ball, until it reached the apex of the toss, and stayed there, almost frozen, suspended in time. The spectators gathered in Boston’s TD Garden, most evincing unwavering support for the team clad in red, twitched in their seats and held their breath in unison.

At that moment in the tournament, Team World had been just one point behind, having lost the opening match where Team Europe's Casper Ruud outwitted and outgunned Reilly Opelka. But when, on that fateful setpoint, Felix Auger-Aliassime sprung forward to rocket the ball into play, this was as good as it was going to get for Team World.

The Canadian would go on to win the point, and therefore the set, but for all his grit and determination, he wasn't able to close out the match—losing in a tightly contested Laver Breaker. The same scenario repeated itself five more times over the course of the weekend. Team World players would start their matches briskly only to fail by mere points at the finishing line. As the tournament advanced, the chasm between the two teams kept growing greater. 

Three of the last Laver Cup editions were clinched by Team Europe, but even discarding history, this year's lineups did not favour their opponents. Collectively, Team World’s players have earned 8,495 ranking points this year to date, lifting 2 trophies in the process. In the same space of time, Team Europe had picked up 27,425 points and 17 trophies (as of 20 Sep 2021). From the very start, the balance of power seemed to be a mismatch—a David versus Goliath bout of skill, flair, and firepower. Except this one had no fairy tale ending. Real-life rarely does. 

However, rather than ponder the respective skill and ability of the players, the thrashing that Team World suffered at the hands of their European colleagues poses a different kind of question. What is the Laver Cup? At present, it's an exhibition tournament that yields no ranking points, and yet, thanks to Roger Federer's clout in the tennis world, figures in the ATP tennis calendar. The almost cruel misbalance of power, and the seemingly arbitrary selection of players, stem from the tournament's very own set of rules. 

When Federer and his agent, Tony Godsick, announced the first Laver Cup, they touted it as the tennis's answer to golf's Ryder Cup—a continental struggle of the Old World's best versus the best of the rest. At the time, the organisers argued that the money on the line, as well as the players' own integrity, would ensure that no punches are held. Those who remained sceptical, going even as far as to suggest that the event would be scripted, had their doubts dispelled by the raw emotion and the quality of the tennis on show in the subsequent tournaments. Looking back on the weekend drubbing, it leaves one with a lingering suspicion that perhaps it would be better if it had been scripted. With Team World’s fourth consecutive loss, the event is starting to take on a very Cold War-esque feel. Boris Spassky would be proud.

The imbalance of sides is a clanking cogwheel in the Laver Cup’s otherwise well-oiled machinery, and it is not one that’s easily fixed. While Team World is able to pick from a rich field of talent, which is only promising to grow with the rise of such exciting phenoms as Sebastian Korda, Brandon Nakashima, Jenson Brooksby, and Juan Manuel Cerundolo (not to mention more established players such as Kwon Soon-woo), Europe churn out their own at an even more astonishing pace (Carlos Alcaraz Garfia is but one that comes to mind). What the Team World currently don’t have is a group of young yet match-hardened powerhouses like the ones who swept up last weekend’s Laver Cup.

It may be too late to tinker with the format to address that issue (and a whole slew of suggestions ranging from adding WTA players to doing away with the Europe vs World team constraints have been mentioned) without upsetting the core concept of the event, but the tournament has still plenty on offer.

The things that the Laver Cup does, it does very well. Even before the discontinuation of the Hopman Cup, there has always been a demand for a high-quality team event. Laver Cup fills that gap with a flair and panache that is unrivalled on the tennis tour.

The level of tennis for an exhibition is, at times, embarrassingly high (hello, ATP Finals), the attention to detail meticulous (if you thought you recognise the electronic voice shouting ‘Out!’ during matches—you were right, it’s Rod Laver himself), and the behind-the-scenes moments, combined with the courtside cheerleading efforts, offer a welcome glimpse into the characters that inhabit the ATP Tour.

Whether it’s Felix Auger-Aliassime’s blistering forehand, Andrey Rublev’s volleys, or Diego Schwartzman’s juggling skills, the Laver Cup delivers.

The sum of its qualities makes the tournament extremely watchable, but it’s what it insists on not doing that makes watching it something of a guilty pleasure.

The biggest problem with the Laver Cup is the supremely talented elephant on the court. And if, momentarily lost in the dazzling spectacle, you forgot of its looming shadow, day one of the tournament offered a stark reminder. The darker narrative within the larger story of the Laver Cup resurfaced when the on-court microphones picked up an exchange on the Team World’s bench after their only victorious match of the weekend. The captain, John McEnroe, was heard telling his players that “Zverev said it was the last fucking point we'll earn.” “He also said he’s innocent,” quipped Reilly Opelka in response.

While tennis fans (and perhaps the players, too) around the world find themselves divided into supporters and sceptics of Sascha Zverev’s defence against Olga Sharypova’s domestic abuse accusations, the sport’s governing bodies are doing their best at pretending there is nothing to care about.

Olga Sharypova’s graphic accusations, Zverev’s brief and vehement denials, and ATP’s silence place the fans in a precarious position of having to choose a stance based on conjecture or risk appearing largely uninterested. Given the fact that a crucial part of Sharypova’s story took place at the 2019 Laver Cup in Geneva, it is the silence in which her accusations reverberate that is most damning.

For all of the Laver Cup’s brilliance and pomp, presenting the trophy to Zverev made for a conflicting mix of emotions. And just as Team World hoped for a different result, the fans too were left feeling that they had the right to hope for more.

And in the end, it was the hope that killed—the hope for an event that delivered a lot but should have done even better.