The last of the great Davis Cup finals? 

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Will the rift blamed on Mirka Federer hinder Switzerland’s chances?

Christmas has come early for the International Tennis Federation. No, make that 10 Christmases have come at once for the ITF, the owner and administrator of the Davis Cup. In fact not since the Davis Cup celebrated its centenary 15 years ago has it had such a fillip as this weekend’s final.

Whatever the health of the Davis Cup – and it has a mixed diagnosis depending who you’re talking to and which country you’re in – there’s no doubt it’s vital to the health of tennis’s primary governing body. An estimated 50 per cent of the ITF’s running costs come from Davis Cup profits, of which the sponsorship by the Paris-based international bank BNP Paribas accounts for a sizeable share.

That dependence has left the ITF vulnerable to criticism that it refuses to countenance changes in the Davis Cup’s format for fear of threatening its own income stream, criticism that is not always fair. Davis Cup’s current structure is aimed at growing the sport in the lower leagues and not just focusing on the 16-nation World Group. But there’s no question that the Davis Cup has suffered the problem in recent years of too many people saying it has a problem. So, to have a weekend in which the eyes of the world are on the final and a piece of genuinely interesting history is set to be made, is manna from heaven for the beleaguered federation.

Roger, The Man

The reason this year’s final is so big is all to do with one man: Roger Federer. The Swiss has won 17 majors, Olympic gold and silver medals, most of the Masters-1000 tournaments and plenty of other accolades. Only one historically meaningful title has still to elude him, the Davis Cup.

The reasons for this are many and varied, and include the self-inflicted. In the semi-finals of the 2003 competition, Federer led Lleyton Hewitt by two sets and 5-3 in the Rod Laver Arena, only for the indefatigable Aussie bounce back to win in five. That seemed to break Federer’s spirit, partly because he came so close and lost, but also because even if he’d won, the chances are Switzerland would still have lost because it didn’t have a second singles player. (The fifth rubber would have been Mark Philippoussis against Michel Kratochvil). In fact the pattern was establishing itself that if Federer didn’t win two singles and the doubles, Switzerland’s chances were almost hopeless. He played again in 2004, but when France’s Nicolas Escudé and Michael Llodra beat Federer and Yves Allegro in the doubles, the same syndrome set in: Escudé’s straight sets win over Kratochvil giving France the win in the fifth.

After that, Federer decided that his measured build-up to the frantic French-Wimbledon-US swing was more important than going somewhere exotic for the Davis Cup first-round. Even when Switzerland developed a second player in Stan Wawrinka, who made it to the top 10 in mid-2008, Federer still didn’t play a first-round tie, and despite Wawrinka’s best and most loyal efforts, Switzerland couldn’t win without him. Federer often played the play-off round in September after the majors were over, but that was largely to keep Switzerland in the World Group (and keep open Federer’s eligibility for the Olympics, which was important to him).

Only in 2012 did he agree to play in the first round, but it all went badly wrong. The Swiss used home advantage to lay a clay court in Fribourg for the visit of the USA. The bumpy court was a leveller, and with Mardy Fish beating Wawrinka in five and John Isner beating Federer in four on the opening day. Then the Swiss team splintered in internecine acrimony, Wawrinka not even showing for the final day because he was offended by Federer’s comments.

Time to get down to business

But this year it has been different. Federer committed to the first round, he won the decisive fifth point for Switzerland in the quarter-finals against Kazakhstan, and from there there was no turning back. Now he and Wawrinka face the French in Lille, a French city that ought to be too small for the final, but which halfway between London and Paris on a high-speed rail line, and which has a new soccer stadium whose grass can be folded in half to leave space for a 27,000-seater makeshift tennis arena.

Three days ago there were fears that the great event would fail to live up to the hype, as the Swiss once again appeared to be descending into civil war. In Saturday night’s semifinal at the ATP Finals in London, Wawrinka got angry with verbal comments made during the match by Federer’s wife, Mirka. There had clearly been an altercation between the two when they came into press (Wawrinka at half past midnight, Federer at five to one), and Federer then pulled out of the London final with a back problem he could pinpoint no more precisely than “probably back spasms.”

In truth, Federer had recognised the damage done during the match, got together with Wawrinka before anyone had too long to stew (which explains why both players were so late coming to their press conferences) and cleared the air.

They have been visibly harmonious in Lille this week, and Federer’s back seems to have benefited from the involuntary rest he gave it on Sunday.

So all is set for Wawrinka to help Federer win the one title to elude him, and for Federer to help Wawrinka win the title that means most to him and that he has so often fought for in a vain single-handed attempt. Both have to be fit – while France’s captain Arnaud Clément has an embarrassment of riches to choose from, Switzerland’s third player Marco Chiudinelli (a boyhood friend of Federer’s from Basel) is only just ranked inside the top 200. Chiudinelli may play in the doubles, but only if the Swiss strategy is to seek victory through wins in three of the four singles.

With the ITF due to choose a new president next year to end Francesco Ricci-Bitti’s 16-year reign, the Davis Cup could be about to change, either cosmetically or drastically. This might therefore prove to be the last great final.

That is … if Assuming Federer and Wawrinka stay fit.

Chris Bowers is the author of ‘Federer’, the first English-language biography of Roger Federer (John Blake Publishing)

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