From it’s inception in 2017, Laver Cup organizers sought to have fans view the event as a top flight, serious competition. In the first few editions of the event actions of the players showed they valued winning and took the event seriously. Now, Laver Cup leaders are bending the spirit, if not the letter of the rules. This decision makes hard-core fans question the competitiveness of the event.
By allowing Roger Federer to play Friday and pre-planning the swapping out of Federer for alternate Matteo Berrettini later in the event, the Laver Cup looks more like an exhibition than ever before. Too bad.
Early Evidence of Seriousness
Just before Marin Cilic and Frances Tiafoe played in the first ever Laver Cup match, fans and pundits wondered how seriously the players viewed the event. By the end Day 1, no doubt existed. Thrilling tie-breakers, team bench celebrations and an electric doubles match made Day 1 spectacular. By the end of Day 3, the explosion of joy from Team Europe contrasted against the uncontrollable tears of Nick Kyrgios following the final match left no doubt that all players and captains wanted to win the Laver Cup. This was no exhibition.
Likely the most famous clip illustrating the seriousness of Laver Cup play came on Day 1 in 2019. On a changeover, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal implored Fabio Fognini to step up his physical and mental game in his match against Jack Sock. Sock took out Fognini in two sets but the optics were clear, the players were there to win.
Bending The Rules
Laver Cup rules allow for a six man roster and an alternate. Each player must play at least one singles match, none can play more than two singles matches. The official Laver Cup website reports that alternates only play if a team member is “injured” or “withdraws”.
However, now Laver Cup leaders report that Roger Federer will play doubles on Day 1, but not play singles at all. Across the tennis world much fanfare is being made that Friday’s doubles will be Federer’s final competitive match.
While this announcement makes for great theater and Federer certainly warrants a celebratory final event, that is not the rules. If The Laver Cup is a world-class competition, Team Europe should not be able to hand pick matches like this. They should not want to do this. Essentially, Team Europe is now a team of seven players preparing to play six from Team World.
With Federer providing an emotional spark and a pro-Europe spectator frenzy in Friday’s final match, Team Europe may well have a advantage over Team World’s doubles duo. Then, on Sunday, the more in-form and powerful Berrettini will play a 3-point singles match in place of Federer.
If Federer is injured, he should not play. If he is healthy, he should play the required one singles match. Pre-planning Berrettini’s substitution gives Europe an obvious advantage.
No, Team World should not…can not…just substitute a fresh Tommy Paul on Sunday – because that is not the reason Laver Cup alternates exist.
Now, one may say Federer has “withdrawn”, so it fits the rules. That is surely not the spirit of the rule, not if it is a real competition.
While Federer’s retirement from professional competition calls for heartfelt ceremony and celebration; it does not call for changing the rules. If The Laver Cup wants to be seen world-class competition and not an exhibition, they should act like one.