2014 Players of the Year

With two dominant year-end No. 1s in Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, many see clear choices here. But, surprise Slam winners on the men’s side and a retirement of Li Na while the reigning Australian Open champion, gives our readers more choices. Plus, Roger Federer came one set from adding another Wimbledon crown to a growing resume that now includes a Davis Cup win.

The men

Marin Cilic: The big and tall Croatian struggled up and down until August, but after reaching the second week he played perfectly, knocking down Berdych, Federer and Nishikori to win the US Open title. He needs to be more consistent overall, but he’s improved huge amount.

Novak Djokovic: The Serbian finished No. 1 again and pulled off the most spectacular in the Grand Slam final when he survived Roger Federer 7-5 in the fifth set. However, he only one Slam – was that good enough after losing some other huge matches in Australia, Roland Garros and the Us Open?

Roger Federer: The Swiss was unable to win a Slam, but the 33 year old was oh so close at Wimbledon and helped win Davis Cup for the first time.

WIMBLEDON, UK, NOVAK DJOKOVIC, STRETCHING WITH HEAD RACQUETRafael Nadal: Yes the Spaniard barely played after early July, but he won Roland Garros for the ninth time – a record – and nearly won at Australia again. However he is constanly getting hurt and that’s is painful

Kei Nishikori: The super fast  24 year old from Japan  didn’t win a Sla, but he reached the final of the US Open and put together big wins to start the year until the finish, ending ranked No. 5.

Stan Wawrinka: The Swiss finally won a Slam, knocking down Djokovic and Nadal to win at the Aussie. He put on some of the most fun matches, but he’s been  way up and down after January.

The women

Eugenie Bouchard: In so many ways, she came out of nowhere … the little kid reached the Australian Open and Roland Garros semis and the Wimbledon final. Sure, she fell apart after July, but she was extremely fast and aggressive.

Simona Halep: The Romanian was so close to being able to win Roland Garros in the final against Sharapova, But in the last two games, she was overwhelmed. However, she was been much more consistent overall and now loves to attack from inside the baseline.

Petra Kvitova: The Czech want to be become No.1 next year, and she was excellent winning Wimbledon, and grabbing the Fed Cup for the third time in the last four years. Yes, she can get frustrated, but the tall girl is faster now and is tougher overall.

Li Na: Unfortunately, Li retired during this fall. But, who can forget about the best Chinese player ever and who knocked off her foes by winning the Australian Open?

Maria Sharapova: Yes, she has had a lot of trouble against Williams over the years, but she has become so smart and faster recently. She won another Roland Garros, her fifth Slam, and pushed hard all year long.

li_mt_uso_082813Serena Williams: One of the all-time greats was upset when she wasn’t nailing down against the other top players, But, then, she went on a tear since mid-July, winning the US Open and the WTA final.

Caroline Wozniacki: We have all been waiting for the former No. 1 to be able to start beating the best again. Since this summer, she was as good as anyone except for Serena Williams, her great friend whom she still can’t find a way to outlast her. 2014 ATP & WTA Coaches of the Year

Voting will run through Dec. 23 … Please vote!

Bringing out the stars

At the end of 2013, the top players dramatically changed their coaches. Novak Djokovic announced he had hired Boris Becker, and Roger Federer asked Stefan Edberg to consult with him. Kei Nishikori working with Michael Chang and Goran Ivanisevic coaching Marin Cilic.

Only Toni Nadal had stayed put, and Magnus Norman had helped Wawrinka in 2013 and knew that he was about to arise in a serious manor.

At the end of 2014, the former standouts that are now retired listened to their players and all of them cheered. Wawrinka won the his first Slam by taking the Aussie Open, Nadal won Roland Garros again, Djokovic never stopping when anyone could have folded and he won Wimbledon; and Cilic find who his first title by bashing through and winning the US Open. Federer may not have been able to win another major, but he was so close against Djokovic in Wimbledon but kept on pushing and winning the Davis Cut for the first time. Nishikori finally listened to what he needed to do, reach a first final and ended the year at No. 5.

Who is the top of the Coach of the Year? They all did well, or spectacularly very well, this year.

Toni Nadal is the only man of the five selected coaches who neither won majors or came very close. He never played for the ATP, but he is extremely smart, which is why after Rafa owns 14 Slams. Uncle Toni might win the poll again, but Magnus, Boris and Goran kept calm and knew when to push their opponents or make them back off. Magnus taught him that he would never say die, while Stefan convinced his all-time great that he will be happier than Davis Cup than anything else around.

So pick your choice, but make sure that the man is truly the most successful choice.

Psychology important with the women

On the WTA side, things have also changed. Maria Sharapova hired Sven Groeneveld at the end of 2013; Nick Saviano grabbed Eugenie Bouchard around the same time and Wim Fissette signed up with Simona Halep in February.

Groeneveld has been around for a long time, bringing Ana Ivanovic to win Roland Garros in 2008 and for Sharapova she did again, as the Russian won Paris for the second time. Sharapova faced Halep in the final, where Fissette (who once coached another former Slam champ Kim Clijsters) helped the Romanian to keep her on the ball and she nearly won it.

Saviano had known Bouchard for years, but rarely traveled with her. This year he decided to try it out and the Canadian was immediately focused, reaching the semifinals of the Aussie Open and Roland Garros and reaching the Wimbledon final.

But there are three coaches whom we know well and are smart enough to be quite when their charges are upset: Carlos Rodriguez with Li Na, David Kotyza with Petra Kvitova and Patrick Mouratoglou with Serena Williams. If they were mad, all you need to know was to shrug their shoulder. When they began to feel better, it was time to release them and tell them its time to rip the ball.  They did and all three of them won Slams again: Li at the Aussie Open, Petra at Wimbledon and Serena at the US Open.

No WTA player was perfect this year, but every player was darn good. It’s finding out which coach was needed the most. Your choice, but it has to be a smart one. 2014 Player Tweeter of the Year

Early voting: Roger Federer-36%, Laura Robson-25%, Tomas Berdych-16%

What entices someone to follow a particular player on Twitter who they are not a huge fan of? A great sense of humor? Strong opinions? Honesty about matches and tour issues? Profound statements? Great photos?

Some or all of those qualities apply to the 10 following nominees for Tweeters of the Year.

Laura Robson won the Player Tweeter of the Year Poll, squeaking over Roger Federer. Will the stylish Robson due it again, even though she missed almost her entire year due to her back surgery. But she is funny and makes us laugh.

Here are our nominees and a quote from this year. Please vote through Sunday, Dec. 21.

Tomas Berdych @tomasberdych
I had a great time talking about tennis with Ivan Lendl today. Result? Ivan would like to help me, but he is too busy…

Genie Bouchard @geniebouchard
Zoned out during press and found myself staring into a huge camera lens. That’s gonna be an attractive picture. #deletepls

Grigor Dimitrov
Got whacked on my way out of the court! I love my fans but please don’t bruise me next time:) #tennisisacontactsport

Roger Federer @rogerfederer
Honored to be awarded. But remember, is bigger than any one person #LoveThisSport

Andy Murray @andy_murray
Huge day for Scotland today! no campaign negativity last few days totally swayed my view on it. excited to see the outcome. lets do this!

Laura Robson @laurarobson recently said:  
Went to the cinema by myself again and the same ticket lady was there. She literally thinks I have no friends.:

Maria Sharapova@MariaSharapova
Hey buddy, I’m right behind you… :)

Stan Wawrinka @stanwawrinka
Back to reality! 6am doping control! 9:30 back to practice ! #WorkHard

Serena Williams @serenawilliams
Big sister taught little sister a lesson..

Caroline Wozniacki @CaroWozniacki
To the paparazzi outside the hotel: I can see you and your camera even when you wear camouflage clothes and a fake baby on your chest lol

Can the ATP top 5 stay there?

Milos Raonic 41%
Grigor Dimitrov 39%
Marin Cilic 9%
Ernests Gulbis 6
Gael Monfils 5%

Cilic, Raonic, Dimitrov, Gulbis and Monfils all are ready to move up

At some point in the future, say the next two years (2017 to start), the Big 4 of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray will no longer be dominating and another group will push them out of the elite group. Eventually, things change and the Big 4 won’t be easily sitting in the top 5.

This year, the season ended between No 1 Djokovic, No. 2 Federer, No. 3 Nadal, No. 4 Stan Wawrinka and No. 5 Kei Nishikori. Murray is No. 6, who was way down and struggling seriously big time until he was rose up in the fall — until he faced against Federer in London and collapsed. Can he reconstruct his purpose quickly? That we do not know but we do know the two-time Slam champion believes he can beat anyone, except for the rest of the Big 4, whom he did not beat him during the 2014 season. Even if he loses to the Big 3 during 2015, he still could finish in No. 4.

But the big question remains: Is the new bread ready to pounce and finish in the top 5 at the end in 2015?

Not everyone has a serious chance, but there are enough who are encouraged and ready to make it very close to the top 5. Will they stay for more than brief moments or will they stay? Here are a few who have yet to end 2015 in the top 5:

cilic goran 14

US Open champ Cilic has the potential to grab a 2015 slam.

Marin Cilic: The Croatian finally broke out, smashing with serves, forehands, backhands and at the net, winning the US Open. He is tall and he’s in great shape, but he gets hurt and can become depressive. He has to steady his nerves and, if he does, he will have another Slam in his pocket.

Milos Raonic: The Canadian is consistently better year after year. His backhand has improved in 2014 — which is mandatory – and he is looking why he should be thinking about his better point construction. He is very aggressive, but he has to begin to best the top guys or he will never make it.

Grigor Dimitrov: The Bulgarian is a very colorful person and when he on fire, he can actually beat just about anyone, including the Big 4. But even though he can dance and react to size of the back, he can also grow at impatient and lose games before he wakes up. The top men have lasted so long because they don’t think about messy calls. They yell, they glare, but then they move onto their next point. Dimitrov must go the same, because if he does, he will look as pretty as Federer does by dipping wicking slices with their one-handed backhands, or he can be stuck in their mud outside of the top 10 forever.

Ernests Gulbis: The 26-year-old came a long way from outside  the top 100 and now is ranked No. 13, but the talkative Latvian started fast and then slowed down fast. He is a very flashy opponent who isn’t afraid to go for his shots. Many fans discovered who he is when he took down Federer and Tomas Berdych to reach the Roland Garros semis, before he went down to Novak Djokovic. He looked like he was ready to really break out, but after Paris, he did nothing after July, losing everywhere and everyone on grass and hard courts in the fall. He likes to talk about how good he is, but to ever reach the top 5, he has to commit to playing hard for an entire season and he’s never really been close for that.

Monfils IW 10 MALT6324

Monfils has the talent to return to top 10 but can he break into the elite circle? Photo: Mal Taam/MALTphoto

Gael  Monfils: Can the Frenchman looked as good as he ever was when he stunned Federer in the Davis Cup final, or will the world No. 19 stay healthy enough and make the top 5 for the first time? The quick-footed Monfils once reached No. 7 in 2011, but he began to slip. The 28-year-old has been consistently hurt due to his sore knees, but he can play for hours and loves his crowds. He lives for long points, but he can swing away from his first serve and his gigantic forehands. He looks like he will make one last push, but staying in the top 5 for more than a week or so? This time, why not?

Who says what: Why are the players not resting?


Berdych is one of the stars playing in the debut IPTL season. Photo by Mal Taam/maltphoto

The women have been done for three weeks now and many of them are itching to play again. But, hold on, the 2015 won’t start until January 3, so relax a little bit, enjoy it and make sure that your body feels very good. Why? Because we have met so many people who over trained in December and, by the time they are in Australia, they are already hurt and that is not good, not good at all when there is now long rests from January through October.

So, when you have a chance, sit down and rest until you are feeling very good and then you can get up and train again. But, don’t get so anxious and most especially, don’t complain that the year is too long if you aren’t resting now …

What is a bit of crazy is players who are done for the season of the WTA and ATP are still playing exhibitions? So fine, if they like to play, love the different places and want to have fun and, of course, they are earning big money. Then, fine. But, do not complain about too many tournaments. If you want to discuss about the future of the Slams, the WTA, the ATP, whomever, that is fine, but do not pretend that you were not over worked in November and December for the WTA, and the second half of November and December in the ATP. Let’s be honest and real …

Yes, the new International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) this weekend looks very impressive. A number of excellent stars such as Maria Sharapova, Jo Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Andy Murray, Ana Ivanovic and Sania Mirza and more are playing. We say: Good for you to the Manila fans who went out to watch some of the best players for the first time on the Philippines courts. But what we do know is that the top players are paid big dollars and what we do not know if whether the owners can make enough money this week to repeat in 2015. Perhaps they will, but the top players will usually try it once, but then skip it the next time unless they are competing for points. They don’t know if the tours will recognize the league and the player may never receive the points. Unless it matters a great deal, the major players will skip it and then the owner will have to convince the fans that they should come out and follow the second tier. Maybe they will, but it is rare.

Where does Federer go next?

Nadal IW 13 TR MALT9260One week before the Davis Cup final between the Swiss and France, Roger Federer somehow managed to play even though he was hurt on Saturday against Stan Wawrinka in the ATP Finals semifinal.

He won a classic over his buddy, Stan, but then his back was very sore, making him pull out vs. Novak Djokovic, and the Serbian won the year-end prize.

No one knew whether Federer would be able to play on Friday against France, but some how, some way he got out there. Even though he lost that day against the high-flying Gael Monfils, he still showed up. Just seeing the Swiss team watch Federer trying even though he was stiff, they grew more inspired and they were ready to take down anyone who was in their path.

Wawrinka played terrific crunching Jo-Wilfried, the pair of Federer/Wawrinka in doubles were out of this world, wasting Richard Gasquet/Julie Benneteau on Saturday, and when Tsonga got hurt again and couldn’t play, Federer was there, feeling healthier and ready to rock and roll. He blew apart Gasquet and the Swiss won for the first time ever in Davis Cup, shutting them down 3-1. They smiled all day and all night long.

Who’s the best?

So now Federer has won just about everything. He has won 17 Grand Slams, all four majors, Master Series crowns all over the place, 82 titles overall, and about to go over 1000 career records in Australia in January.  Really, there is nothing to gain any more, except perhaps the 2016 Olympic. He and Stan won in the doubles in 2008 Beijing, but Roger hasn’t won the singles there. And yes, he fell to Andy Murray in the 2012 London – and that hurt – but it is not as important of the Slams, or really, not even as important as the Davis Cup, at least for me.

The Davis Cup is different, because there are national teams which have to work with each other. It is not just one person winning by himself. This time, Federer and Wawrinka worked with each other and it paid off, as they were hurting or tired or not playing great. They just kept going at it. He will never forget that; neither will Stan.

Essentially, it is pretty clear that Federer is considered The GOAT, the Greatest of All Time Perhaps, but the one thing we do now is that there is one man who is nipping at the heels of the GOAT. That man is Rafael Nadal, owning 14 Grand Slams, and who has won a huge amount of Masters Series, has won Davis Cups, and who won the Olympics gold in 2008 in singles. Will Nadal actually win four more Slams and pass Federer to reach 18 majors? I doubt it given that Nadal is constantly hurt again and missed much of this season after June.

But what we do now is that Nadal is 23-10 over Federer in head to head and that is huge.

Roger is 33 years old and Rafa is 28 years old. As the old man is getting a bit slower and you’ve got to figure Federer will retire after the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. But, what if Nadal beats Fed another say four more times? Will the Swiss retire down 10-27 in head to head and say, “I’m the Best Ever” over the guy who beat him again and again? Will he actually say that, or will Federer just say to the tennis media, “What all of you decide is fine by me.”

What we don’t know, but will find out, which one will wins in 2015.

But what we did find out last week is that Federer rose up and pocketed a very necessary win to help grab the Davis Cup for the Swiss.

Now we know that Federer is battling again.

But, considering the Federer vs. Nadal rivalry, we almost have a brand new world.

‘One for the boys’ as Federer captures Davis Cup title


The Davis Cup … finally in the Swiss trophy case.

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.

Warwrinka, healthy Federer snare Davis Cup doubles victory

Gasquet will face Nadal

Gasquet can’t raise his level in doubles.

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.

The last of the great Davis Cup finals? 

federer mirka madrid 12

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)

Federer unable to play ATP Final due to bad back


Federer looks beyond London to Davis Cup final.

LONDON – Roger Federer pulled through an historic event when he fought off fourth matches and overcame his friend, Stan Wawrinka, 4‑6, 7‑5, 7‑6 in the semis on ATP World Tour Finals Saturday. But by the time he woke up, he was way too sore and, although he tried, he couldn’t loosen it up and give it a go. The Swiss couldn’t walk on the court against Novak Djokovic in the final on Sunday and compete. The world No. 1 Djokovic walks away with another title. Once again, he advances himself as a legend of the fall season.

Federer did not want to risk it because next week the Swiss will face France away in the Davis Cup final. Perhaps he would have played in London on Sunday. But given that Djokovic had played excellent this week, he would have had at least being able to compete say at 80 percent. Against the Serbian who was ready to rumble, he didn’t have much of a chance.

But No. 2 Federer wanted a real chance, as the 33-year-old does is still aiming to reach No. 1 someday for the last time. But, today, he decided not risk it.

“I am sorry to announce that I cannot play the finals tonight vs. Novak,” Federer said on his Facebook page. “I hurt my back late in the match yesterday against Stan.”

He later said, “I try all year to be ready for the ATP World Tour Finals, and I didn’t want it to end this way. But I tried everything I could last night, also today, painkillers, treatment, rest and so forth, warm-up till the very end. But just I can’t compete at this level with Novak. It would be too risky at my age to do this right now and I hope you understand.”

Federer may not say it, but the Davis Cup final in gigantic for him. The Swiss have never won the Davis Cup, and given knowing exactly what will occur during the entire season, that is very difficult to predicut who is healthy and who is hurt. If you are healthy and decided all year long to make Davis Cup a priority, then reaching the final is an important goal. This time around, the Swiss finally did.

However, no one really knows whether Federer will be able to play at all. But what we do know is that he will try to get healthy by Friday in Lille and hope that he can stand up, run around and out-think the assumed foe of Gael Monfils on clay.

France’s Monfils runs like the wind, but he is 2-8 against Federer and the Swiss has taken him down three times at Roland Garros. While Monfils pushed Federer to a fifth set in the US Open quarters – which the Swiss won – with Federer physically hurt, you may has well throw out the window.

Federer might be able to play for three hours and win, but he it is highly unlikely to play in Saturday for doubles. Perhaps he will be OK with a day’s rest and compete on Sunday, assuming that he or Wawrinka (who will face Jo Tsonga on Friday) or Swiss to have won at least a tie going into the final. Who knows, Federer could win two matches in Lille and celebrate one of the last pieces to his incredible resume. Or hurt his back hurt again and pulled out. If Federer can’t play next weekend, you may as well give the trophy to France.