By: Jane Voigt
It’s not as big as World Cup, yet Davis Cup certainly eclipsed anything a pitch could offer as Switzerland, led by Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, won their country’s first title in this prestigious 114-year-old international team competition.
The small country known for high mountain peaks and pristine valley villages, cow bells and banking, defeated a deep French team, 3-1, becoming the 14th different country to win the Davis Cup trophy.
As fate may have predicted, Federer was the one to clinch the title, dribbling a drop shot over the net and falling flat on his face with joy, his chest heaving with emotion. Team Captain Severin Luthi was the first to grab Federer for a hug, an appropriate celebration between two friends that have put Swiss tennis on the map in a huge way.
The Davis Cup title was the only star missing from Federer’s flawless resume.
“I played a good match when I had to,” Federer said in front of a record Davis Cup crowd of 27,448 at Stade Pierre Mauroy. He quickly shifted attention to the true meaning of this competition. “This one’s for the boys. It was not about ticking off another box. I’ve won enough in my career. This is for everyone. I’m happy for everyone else, a historic moment for our country.”
If a “Most Valuable Player” award had been presented, Federer would have been the obvious winner. Yet without Wawrinka this Swiss team – and Federer – would not have been all smiles.
“Stan played an unbelievable weekend,” Federer said. “That’s what gave me the opportunity today. I’m very aware of that.”
Wawrinka, who will turn 30 next year, began 2014 by first winning in Chennai and his first major title in Melbourne. The Swiss veteran became the first player today since Andre Agassi in 1992 to win his maiden Grand Slam and a Davis Cup title in the same season. He continued to break barriers throughout the year, capturing his first ATP Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo, defeating Federer en route. After today, Monte Carlo remains one of a few titles to evade Federer, along with the Rome Masters and Olympic Gold. Beginning against Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Wawinka defeated the World No. 17, 61 36 63 62, reminding the world that he is No. 4.
With speculation filling the media’s sails, Federer came on next, couched in disparaging terms about his “bad back,” which forced him to withdraw from the ATP World Tour Finals a week ago. Gael Monfils, entertainment extraordinaire, put on a stunning display of athleticism, focus, and heart. Federer had not lost a set in Davis Cup since his initial appearance in 1999, a year after he turned pro, but couldn’t get it going against the mercurial Monfils. All at once the tie was, well, “tied.”
Federer denied that his back caused the 6-1, 6-4, 6-3 loss, adding that he just had not had enough time to practice on the red clay of Lille.
But he got more practice Saturday as Coach Luthi chose Federer and Wawrinka for doubles, the most important match of Davis Cup. Six of the seven most recent final weekends have been decided by doubles.
The Swiss boys lacquered their French counterparts with power and grace, putting to bed any further talk about Federer’s health. “This will be the last question on my back,” Federer let the press know after they defeated Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet, 63 75 64.
During the match, Wawrinka championed their relationship, the key to any successful doubles team. He swaggered with pride, talked into Federer’s ear after points won or lost. As the match wore on Federer loosened, even patting his buddy on the derriere a few times. Their teamwork left the French with little hope.
“I’ve never been affronted with such force in doubles,” Gasquet said in press, as translated from French. “One would have to be exceptional to win.”
Federer and Wawrinka had played four previous matches for their country, however had never won on red clay. Their might at net, from the baseline, and on serve had to have impressed even the jaded. They served 100% on second serves (31/31), winning 74% of those points, and accumulated 67 winners to 28 forced and unforced errors, according to the International Tennis Federation.
“Really, really happy with the way we played today,” Wawrinka told fans. “We were really aggressive. We know each other so well; we know how to play together. Today we both did our job.”
As Saturday closed, Switzerland lead 2-1. Such deficit is rarely reversed, although France had chances to rock the predicted outcome with its depth. Records revealed that, in 1927, France came back from the same scoreline to defeat the United States.
Luthi’s decision to showcase the best of his team in doubles, leaving Mark Chiudinelli and Michael Lammer on the bench for the entire tie, was made an hour after Federer lost in singles. However, Luthi had help. While in London for the ATP World Tour Final, the Swiss captain contracted David Macpherson, coach of Mike and Bob Bryan. Macpherson is respected as one of the best doubles’ coaches in the game.
Federer had been expected to play Jo-Wilfred Tsonga on Sunday. However, the French Tennis Federation revealed Tsonga was suffering from an elbow injury. And yet Federer, the non sequitur of the championship, led his team to this historic victory anyway. A fairytale ending was the only fitting end, too. The clay court’s speed, which seemed relatively fast, fueled the 17-time Slam champ’s love of quick pace and short rallies.
He served and volleyed, hit drop shots without a hitch, earning 68% of points on his second serve. He converted 31% of break chances while Gasquet could not muster a single break opportunity in the rubber. Federer’s winners to errors ratio was 62/34. It was his 50th Davis Cup win, a record for the competition.
Arnaud Clement, captain of the French team, has a list of questions to answer about his choices and his team’s overall performance. With doubles the apex of the weekend, the logical team to be picked would have been Julien Benneteau and Edouard Roger-Vasselin, winners of Roland Garros, and one of the top eight teams in the ATP World Tour Finasl. Yet Vasselin was not entered on the roster. Benneteau and Gasquet had never even played Davis Cup.
Picking Gasquet over Benneteau raised more eyebrows for reverse singles. Gasquet’s record against Federer was a lopsided 2-12. Once a top-ten contender, Gasquet has sunk to No. 26 while Benneteau’s year was full of successes. He made the quarterfinals of Indian Wells and the semis Cincinnati — both Masters 1000 tournaments — and was runner-up to Kei Nishikori at Kuala Lumpur this fall.
Gilles Simon might have been a better choice, as well. He has played 13 matches since the U. S. Open, including the finals in Shanghai, where he lost to Federer in two tight tiebreaks. The Frenchman has hung tough against Federer in the past, always willing to retrieve and extend points. If there was even a shadow of doubt about Federer’s back, Simon could have been the man to tip the scales.
Sources over the weekend revealed that Clement, in his debut as Davis Cup captain, had preferred to have better singles’ players; then, everyone was free to decide. France had nine Davis Cup titles, the last coming in 2001. For it to have failed to win its 10th with so much depth to chose from will not be soon forgotten by a country that can turn loyalties on a dime.
Speculation on what could have been is natural, especially in tennis. However, the Swiss team will take its trophy home with pride. In their press conference the boys seemed to have had some champagne, as reported by many tennis journalists. Federer said, “I can’t thank Stan enough for the effort he’s put in, everything he did over the weekend.” Asked to comment on 2015 Davis Cup, he deferred the question to Wawrinka, adding, “You speak better French than me,” which was followed by Stan’s comeback, “Not when I’m drunk.”
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