LILLE, FRANCE — The Roger Federer magic finally emerged on the second day of the Davis Cup final, he and Stan Wawrinka taking the doubles to give Switzerland a 2-1 lead going into the final day. But while it keeps alive Federer’s dream of capturing the one top-level title he has never won, the architect of this victory was Wawrinka, who is rapidly becoming the Swiss hero this weekend.
It’s been a mystery why Federer and Wawrinka have had such a poor record in Davis Cup since winning Olympic doubles gold in Beijing six years ago. When they lost to Golubev-Nedovyesov of Kazakhstan in April’s quarter-finals, they looked as shaky as a scratch pairing. But both brought missing pieces to today’s party – Federer brought the volleys he has honed in recent months with more forays to the net in his singles, while Wawrinka brought the overt confidence he developed during the ATP Finals in London and that clearly has not been shaken by his heartbreaking defeat to Federer a week ago. They have also been working this week with David McPherson, the Bryan brothers’ coach, who Switzerland’s captain Severin Lüthi brought in to help maximise the Swiss pair’s potential.
The result was a superb display by the two men in red, one Federer described as “the best doubles Stan and I have ever played”. While Federer picked up the low volleys that would beat most people and swooped like a gazelle for some high backhand volley interceptions, Wawrinka provided the raw aggression from the back of the court. For two sets the French pair of Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet stuck with them, but once Gasquet was broken in the 11th game of the second set, the French spirit seemed broken, and the Swiss bludgeoned their way to a 6-3, 7-5, 6-2 victory in two hours 10 minutes.
With all the focus on Federer, in particular following the back problem that forced him to forfeit last Sunday’s ATP final against Novak Djokovic, the focus has failed to pick up that the French are far from the happy camp they have seemed to date. At French practice on Saturday morning, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga spent the whole time practising alongside Gasquet, and as it was Tsonga-Gasquet who beat Berdych-Stepanek in the doubles of September’s semi-final at Roland Garros, many expected Tsonga-Gasquet to be France’s pair. The French sports
daily L’Equipe even announced on its website that Tsonga would replace Benneteau.
But he didn’t. Benneteau played, and Tsonga didn’t turn up on the French bench until late in the second set. That has left question marks hanging over who will play singles against Federer in Sunday’s first reverse singles. After Tsonga’s pallid showing against Wawrinka on Friday, if he has a problem – whether to do with confidence or health – he could be cannon fodder. France’s other options are Benneteau or Gasquet, but Gasquet was picked on mercilessly by the Swiss in the doubles so his confidence won’t be high, while Benneteau had to have treatment on a thigh or lower back problem late in the third set. It does not look good for France.
The French pair pulled up the drawbridge when asked about Tsonga’s health. ‘We always expected to play the doubles,’ Benneteau said. He also denied rumours that Tsonga has a wrist problem, and said the only reason Tsonga practised with Gasquet on Saturday morning was that it fitted the time at which each player wanted to hit. Believe it if you will.
Although Benneteau and Gasquet have played together several times and won an Olympic bronze medal in 2012, Gasquet’s refusal to play in the deuce court meant Benneteau had to take that role. Benneteau has done that in the past, notably partnering Michaël Llodra, but he has played the past season in the advantage court partnering Edouard Roger-Vasselin. And if you break the match down, the French were undone by their inability to return well enough.
Federer served first, to send the signal that he wasn’t having to tread carefully with his back, but Wawrinka was the dominant player in the first set. He ran Nadal-like back to the baseline after the coin toss, he pummelled his returns, and he did most of the talking. It was like the younger brother finally losing his awe of the illustrious big brother.
The match was of very high quality. All four players came in behind every serve, there were some acrobatic volleys, which produced scintillating rallies. It was in many ways the ultimate in doubles and illustrates one of the unheralded jewels Davis Cup can often produce.
If the French were to make any headway they had to take control in the second set. They had a break point on a shaky Federer service game, they then had two break points in each of Wawrinka’s next two service games, while holding their own serve with ease. But by the time the Swiss had levelled at 4-4, the French were 0-5 on break points, and it cost them. They survived two break points at 4-4, but at 5-5 Wawrinka’s aggressive returning opened up an opportunity the Swiss were determined to take, and minutes later the visitors were 2-0 up.
After that it was all Switzerland, and at one point in the third set Federer and Wawrinka were both left with broad smiles after winning a glorious rally. By then they were unstoppable – Gasquet saved two break points at 1-1 after leading 40-0, but that proved the last game the French won, as the Swiss reeled off the last four games to seal a deserved victory.
Benneteau was doing his best to keep French spirits up. “Tomorrow could be one of the most beautiful days in French tennis,” he said, “so we have to keep the spirit up.” But ominously for the French, Federer, answering what he said would be his last question on the subject of his back, said “Whatever it feels like, I feel at 100 per cent now, and I expect to be that way tomorrow.”
If it is, there looks to be only one winner.