LILLE, FRANCE – And so the fairy tale has come true. The final missing piece from Roger Federer’s trophy cabinet, the one that seemed so out of his reach largely through his own neglect, has finally been captured. The great man has a Davis Cup title, after he rubbed Richard Gasquet’s nose in the red dirt of Lille to give Switzerland it’s first ever team title.
Eyebrows may be raised at how quickly Federer recovered from the back injury that put him out of the ATP Finals a week ago, but backs are strange things, and for all his denials of the Davis Cup’s importance to him, Federer really wanted this to celebrate a team trophy rather than an individual one. “We wanted this clearly very badly,” he said. “It was definitely one of the better feelings in my career, no doubt about it. So much nicer to celebrate it all together – this is one for the boys.”
The Swiss may be a two-man team of Federer and the Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka, but they were the better team this weekend. Although the French organised this final superbly, the one missing element was a happy camp in the home locker room. What exactly happened to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the course of the weekend is still unclear, but whether it’s an injury or a loss of confidence, the French were left clutching at straws when they entered the final day needing to beat an essentially fit Federer in the first of Sunday’s matches.
The job was given to Richard Gasquet, who has twice beaten Federer on clay but whose confidence is not exactly high. The French part of the world-record 27,448 crowd did what it could for him. They tried their hardest to hate Federer for the day, but found how difficult it was. They booed Federer’s practice shots, and when Gasquet walked into the arena to a massive fanfare with lights, music and cheers from over 20,000 French mouths, he was walking into a theatre from which he could emerge triumphant. Changes may be on the way for the Davis Cup, but it would be a real loss if atmospheres like this generated by a stunningly colourful home-and-away tableau were to be lost, as would happen in an all-teams-in-one-place format.
It’s easy to forget this was a golden opportunity for Gasquet as well as Federer. At nine he was on the front of France’s leading tennis magazine as the future of French tennis, and at 16 he was heralded as a prodigy for winning a round at a Masters-1000 tournament. Yet another 16-year-old called Rafael Nadal soon eclipsed him, and he has struggled to find the limelight since. This was his moment, but he never looked as if he believed he could seize it. As he walked down the stairs onto the court, his face betrayed the signs of someone who was petrified, and despite a wag in the crowd having shouted during Saturday’s doubles “Lift up your head, Richard,” he walked onto the court with his chin drooped and his shoulders hunched.
A good start would have told Federer he had a fight on his hands, but the match was effectively decided in the third game. Gasquet led 30-0, but Federer came back at him. At deuce Federer played the kind of point he would never have played before teaming up with Stefan Edberg. He hit a backhand slightly off the frame, realised late how good it was, ghosted into the net, and won the point with an improvised half-volley. A forehand winner down the line on the next point broke Gasquet’s serve, and punctured his fragile confidence.
From then on Federer was in control. There were some great points, and plenty of occasions when Gasquet got the better of them. But he was having to work so hard to hold serve, and he never had a single break point. He plays essentially the same game as Federer, but Federer does it so much better. Federer won the first set in 44 minutes and broke twice in the second. Early in the third Gasquet twice had 15-30 on the Federer serve, but Federer just went up a level to snuff out the danger. And then he twice broke Gasquet to win 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 in an hour and 53 minutes.
The end showed what it meant to Federer. At 5-2 40-0 he served down the middle, followed it up with a drop shot that Gasquet didn’t get near, and collapsed in triumph onto his tummy in the red dirt. It was also a relief for the French, particularly for the crowd who could finally allow themselves to celebrate with the great man who speaks their language, and his teammate Wawrinka who also has a high profile in France.
A career of true achievement
So Federer’s trophy cabinet is complete, but realistically the golden era in Swiss tennis has started to end. Federer is 33, the support team of Marco Chiudinelli and Michael Lammer, who were with Federer on the junior circuit, are 33 and 32, and Wawrinka as the youngster will be 30 early next year. There are few Swiss youngsters on the horizon. “This is an amazing day for sports in our country,” he said. “We’re a smaller country. We don’t win big events every other week, so it’s a big day. I hope it can create things for the future, in tennis but even for other sports, to inspire a generation and get other people to invest more into sports.”
Federer wouldn’t say whether he will play Davis Cup next year. He needs to play one more weekend in 2015 or 16 to be allowed to play in the Rio Olympics, but it will be a case of a weekend with his mates rather than a strategic assault on winning the cup.
As the Swiss celebrated with Dwight Davis’s silver salad bowl, one man to get himself into the photos was René Stammbach, the president of the Swiss Tennis Association. He is one of the front-runners to succeed Francesco Ricci-Bitti as president of the International Tennis Federation next year. That may be how Switzerland exercises its influence on world tennis once Federer and Wawrinka hang up their rackets in a couple of years’ time.