A big man who just got a bit bigger: Andy Murray and Great Britain win the Davis Cup over Belgium

Olympic gold medalist Murray begins his 2013 Aussie campaign.


DAVIS CUP, Nov. 29 – The 2015 tennis season is over, and it may have ended on the shot of the year. Andy Murray has steered Great Britain to its first Davis Cup title since 1936, the last of the golden years British tennis enjoyed before Fred Perry retired. Murray beat David Goffin of Belgium 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 to win the Davis Cup for the 10th time and set his own record for the most live rubbers won in a year.

If great drama is made by confounding expectations, this would not count as great drama. The British were expected to win 3-1, and they duly did. But if drama can also be finding the most breathtaking shot at the most crucial moment, then Andy Murray’s lob on match point was one of the shots of the year.

It was the Scot’s second match point. On the first he had dumped a backhand return into the net off a nervy second serve. On the second he got into a long rally, which Goffin appeared to be controlling. On the 17th shot, Goffin drove a forehand into Murray’s forehand corner. Murray did well to get it back. Goffin stepped in for the kill, driving his forehand to the Murray backhand. But Murray read it, stepped across and played the most exquisite lob on the 20th stroke to seal the trophy for the British. A short worthy of the moment!

Anyone not in the stadium or watching on television would note the result as exactly what most people expected. But Goffin played well. His performance was vastly better than his paltry display three weeks ago when Murray beat him 6-1, 6-0 at the Paris Masters, and while he lacked the presence to seriously threaten Murray, he offered a constant reminder that he was good enough to seize the initiative if Murray’s level dropped.

But then Murray has been outstanding all year. Because of the ITF’s custom of counting dead rubbers as part of Davis Cup records, Murray’s 11 wins this year leaves him still behind John McEnroe and level with Michael Stich and Ivan Ljubicic. But three of McEnroe’s 12 wins in 1982 were dead rubbers, and one of Stich’s in 1993 was; Ljubicic’s 11 wins in 2005 were all live, but he lost his final match to Dominik Hrbaty on the final day of the final. By contrast, Murray has won 11 out of 11, all live, and only didn’t play against the Bryan twins in March’s first round because James Ward had beaten John Isner on the Friday so Murray was rested for the doubles. He can therefore count as the most successful Davis Cup player in a single year since the World Group began in 1981, and following this triumph Ljubicic tweeted that Murray’s achievement in 2015 is greater than his from 2005.

If that feels like a trick with statistics, there’s no doubting Murray’s colossal status as a team player. Although he is the best tennis player the British have ever produced (with the possible exception of Perry, but the level of competition was so much less intense in the 1930s), he is not the only top-level British player since the second world war. Before tennis went open there were Mike Sangster and Mike Davies. Just after it went open, there was a generation of Mark Cox and Roger Taylor, who were closely followed by John and David Lloyd. The Lloyd brothers joined with Cox and Buster Mottram to reach the final in 1978, but that’s as close as the British have come since Perry. Even the twin-flag-carriers Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, both of whom reached fourth in the rankings, never got beyond the first round of the world group.

Much as this triumph is a single-handed one for Murray, the energy he brought to the team even five years ago has been very important. The appointment of Leon Smith as captain in 2010 was significant, in that Smith had coached Murray from age 11 to 15, so there was a trusting relationship there. Smith’s first tie in charge was to avoid relegation to the bottom tier of the Davis Cup, and Murray made it clear he would not always be available to play so he expected Britain’s other players to carry some of the load.

Only in September 2013 did Murray commit fully to playing every tie. By then the British were the playoff round for the world group, having rallied from 0-2 down to beat Russia in April 2013, with James Ward and Dan Evans winning clutch rubbers on the final day. So when Murray talks about this Davis Cup triumph being a team effort, he is not being polite or parading false modesty – he is genuinely aware of the contribution made by the players ranked lower than him.

It was a point he regularly emphasised in Great Britain’s 2015 run. Having won Olympic gold, the US Open and Wimbledon, the Davis Cup was his next target, and he recognised very early that this was a team pursuit, however dependent the British were on him. And not just the other players, but also the backroom staff of coaches, physios, etc.

The word ‘team’ is more important than ‘patriotic’ in Murray’s context. He represents two countries – Scotland and Great Britain – and is a very proud Scot. Although he didn’t have a vote in last year’s referendum on Scottish independence (because he lives in England), he let it be known late in the campaign that he had been inspired by the independence campaign and would have voted to secede from the United Kingdom if he’d been so enfranchised.

Yet here he was crying his eyes out in emotional triumph for the entity he’d have voted to break away from. In that respect it was more like a golfer winning for the European Ryder Cup team than for a player winning for his nation, more a triumph for the team backed by a geographical entity than for any sense of patriotism. When asked after his win over Goffin who the passion was for, he talked much more about his team-mates than about his country.

“Always when I’ve played Davis Cup, since I was 17, I’ve been unbelievably passionate,” he said. “I loved it when I played the doubles against Israel [his debut]. That hasn’t changed, but also I know all this team extremely well, and because we’ve been together for such a long time there’s a stronger bond between us than there has been in the past, and I think all the players get on with each other, respect each other, and a lot of us are close friends, so it means a lot to do it with them.”

Murray’s biggest problem remains that his on-court persona endears him to so few people. Even his country folk sometimes find it hard to warm to him, yet he is held in the highest esteem by those who know him off-court. The Belgian captain Johan van Herck said after this final, “I’m very pleased for Andy. He deserves this both as a sportsman and as a human being. I’ve known him since he was a junior, and while he sometimes pushes things to the limit when he’s on court, he is always a very decent man off the court, always interested in people. He’s a big man.”

And as the last member of the ‘big four’ to win the Davis Cup, he’s a bit bigger now.



Murray brothers take doubles, up 2-1 over Belgium

Andy Murray

Andy Murray has the second of three wins he’s looking for in Ghent. Mal Taam/MALT Photo

FROM THE DAVIS CUP FINAL IN GHENT, BELGIUM – By all economic logic, doubles as a spectator sport ought to be dead by now. The gulf between public interest in singles and doubles seems to grow each year, and the ATP has only saved the doubles circuit by a change in the scoring system that effectively limits the length of matches.

And yet the corpse continues to breathe, especially in Davis Cup where the doubles can still be pivotal, despite making up just 20 percent of a weekend’s action. The doubles in this final was a case in point, not just pivotal, but a very watchable match. Great Britain’s Andy and Jamie Murray’s 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Belgium’s Steve Darcis and David Goffin is unlikely to be memorable as a great contest, but it was a fascinating tactical encounter which had some great points, and the result makes it hard to see anything other than the British claiming a tenth Davis Cup title on Sunday.

And yet there was something unsatisfying about it. The weakest link among the four was, by some way, Jamie Murray. He looked almost out of his depth at times, and his kid brother had to bail him out on numerous occasions. Darcis and Goffin, playing together for just the fifth time (including two Challengers), targeted the left-handed Murray, and allowed him no confidence on his returns, many of which he lobbed more in hope than expectation.

Eventually Jamie woke up, most noticeably after dropping serve early in the third set, and by the end his volleys were sharp. But his serve was always shaky, and Andy was the only member of the quartet not to be broken.

And yet, if one looks at the doubles rankings, Jamie is seventh, while Andy is at 180, Goffin at 378, and Darcis 596. And the reason Andy, Goffin and Darcis played when higher-ranked doubles players were available is that they are better players – they just don’t play enough doubles to have better rankings. In effect, when it comes to Davis Cup, singles rankings generally are a better guide to doubles prowess than doubles rankings.

That is not to knock doubles on the tour. The doubles competition at the recent ATP World Tour finals produced some great matches and human interest stories, capped by a 34-year-old from the Caribbean, Jean-Julien Rojer, reaching the top of his profession having grown up with self-taught strokes in Curacao, Netherlands Antilles, with very little help until the Grand Slam Development Fund picked him up at 13. Tour doubles has clearly found its niche, serving a useful purpose as a sub-tour to the singles stars.

But Davis Cup regularly shows that a top-100 singles player generally trumps a doubles specialist. Goffin and Darcis were Belgium’s best option, and with Darcis holding the pair together with some delightful touches at the net, Belgium could easily have won until Darcis faded badly in the fourth set. But a tactical adjustment initiated by Andy proved the Belgians’ undoing.

The Murrays took the first set, but the match seemed to turn when Jamie was broken in the third game of the second. With the Belgians targeting Jamie, Andy had to take a lot of risks to cover for his brother. When Jamie was broken at the start of the third set, the Belgians looked the likelier winners, but at that point Andy started staying back while Jamie was returning, thereby giving his brother a bigger target to aim for and making it harder for the Belgian at the net to hit volley winners.

Combined with the Belgians’ failure to come in after their serves, the effect proved dramatic. It allowed Jamie to push his returns and charge in to the net. As his reflex volleys found their range alongside Andy’s cultured volleys, the visitors wrested the initiative from the hosts, and turned the match back in their favour. There was a flurry of breaks: Jamie, Darcis, Goffin, Jamie again and Darcis again, but thanks to Andy’s service holds the British took the third set.

With Darcis broken in the third game of the fourth, and tiring badly, Jamie’s confidence grew, and he was a more convincing player at the end as the Murrays ran out winners in two hours, 49 minutes. Andy paid tribute to his brother at the end, saying, “I trust Jamie on a doubles court so much, and even if he started slow, I knew he would get it going. He loves playing in big matches. He tends to perform very well on big occasions, and this year in all of the ties, he’s performed extremely well. I trust him when he’s next to me on the court, not just because he’s my brother but because he’s an exceptionally good tennis player.”

Sunday’s singles key is Murray vs. Goffin

Nice words, and no doubt heartfelt to a brother and teammate. Nonetheless, the match strengthens the impression that the British team is Andy Murray plus a couple of helpers, and Murray is likely to seal victory for Great Britain – and make it 11 wins out of 11 for him in Davis Cup this year – when he takes on David Goffin in Sunday’s first reverse singles.

That match is not a foregone conclusion. Goffin can afford to be more relaxed than he was against Kyle Edmund in Friday’s singles, and while he has never taken a set off Murray in two previous meetings, they have yet to play on clay, which is Goffin’s best surface. But Belgium’s problems appear to go beyond the unlikelihood of Goffin beating Murray. Darcis admitted to tiring in the fourth set of the doubles, and while he said he’d be available for a fifth rubber if necessary, he looks out of the running having used up his reserves in the doubles.

Inadvertently, this doubles may have acted as an advertisement for next year’s Olympic doubles tournament. The allure of Olympic medals means the best singles players are often willing to turn out for doubles in the Olympics, indeed it has been known for players to default from the singles if they feel they have a better chance of a medal in doubles. The theory that the Olympics have the best doubles tournament in today’s tennis – because so many top singles players turn out – appears to have been boosted by Saturday’s action at this Davis Cup final.

Great Britain and Belgium all square 1-1 in Davis Cup Final



NOVEMBER 27, DAVIS CUP FINAL – In Day One from Ghent, Belgium, the home country and Great Britain are knotted at 1-1.

After an hour and 11 minutes of this final, one of the tennis stories of the year was two-thirds written. Kyle Edmund, a 20-year-old born in Johannesburg but who has lived most of his life in England, was threatening to make one of the most impressive Davis Cup debuts ever, and to kill off this final within two hours of it starting. He led David Goffin 6-3, 6-1, having had a set point to win his first set in Davis Cup as a bagel.

At that point, the British captain Leon Smith could feel not only vindicated in giving his youngster the second singles slot after Andy Murray, but confident about the rest of the weekend. If his No 2 player could so utterly dominate the world No 16, then even if he went on to lose the match he would still be highly fancied to win a fifth rubber against either the world No 84 (Steve Darcis) or No 108 (Ruben Bemelmans). Yet, by the time Edmund did lose the match, Smith would have been decidedly less rosy about the rest of the weekend.

Edmund was outstanding for two sets. In a 12-minute first game, he looked a little nervous, perhaps because he’d been kept waiting a long time in an otherwise highly impressive opening ceremony. But once he’d saved two break points, he was out of the blocks, and Goffin did well to stave off a 6-0 set. Goffin was clearly feeling the weight of expectation, and in the second set his serve disintegrated as he double-faulted three service games away.

But the match began to turn after he stopped Edmund’s impressive streak at seven games. Edmund played a poor third game of the third set, and Goffin was in. The Belgian wasn’t playing particularly well, but Edmund’s drop in level allowed Goffin to find his way to some form. Soon Edmund was looking physically weak. He admitted after the match that he was struggling with tiredness and cramping in the fourth and fifth sets, and he crumbled, losing the last 12 games as Goffin won 3-6, 1-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-0. Yet it wasn’t a long match – two hours 47 minutes in total – so the Brit was basically saying he began to wilt after two hours.

More importantly, when asked on three occasions whether he would be mentally and physically ready to play the fifth rubber on Sunday if needed, he said he’d be physically fit but didn’t talk about the mental side. While there was nothing he said that could be held against him, he didn’t sound like a man who believed he could win. And his physical condition must be a worry – this is the player who beat Stéphane Robert in five sets in the first round of the French Open in May, but then couldn’t take to the court to play Nick Kyrgios two days later because his body had rebelled. He may simply not be ready for two best-of-five matches in three days.

Murray’s reliability

Goffin’s win threw the spotlight back on Andy Murray. It was always expected that Murray had to win three matches for the British to lift their first Davis Cup since 1936, so his best scenario was a straight sets win. He got one – he beat Ruben Bemelmans 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 – but it took half an hour longer than it needed to after Murray was docked a point for a second audible obscenity at 2-2 in the third set.

Both captains were warned before this final that the umpires would be very strict about audible obscenities, and Murray is a serial offender. It’s a wonder that television picture directors persist in showing close-ups of Murray’s face after he misses a shot, as the camera regularly catches him mouthing words that wouldn’t be heard in polite society, for which few lip-reading skills are required. So it was no surprise that Murray was warned early in the third set.

What was a surprise was that he did it again just two games later, and right under the nose of the umpire. He claimed afterwards not to have heard the first warning because of the crowd noise, and joked that he found it hard to believe the umpire had heard the words he had used for the same reason. But with his record, it was a pretty feeble excuse, and he had effectively put himself in a straitjacket for the rest of the match. So when he was broken to trail 2-4, he couldn’t let out the angst with his usual flurry of unpublishable terms. He was clearly very wound up.

Murray eventually recaptured control of the match. He let out an animalistic “yeah!” when he saved at set point at 4-5, then broke for 6-5 on three magnificent forehands, and served out a victory that always looked likely. But the whole thing took two hours 24 minutes, the third set taking almost half of it, and the extra half-hour could come back to bite him in Sunday’s singles against Goffin if Saturday’s doubles goes long.

There seems little doubt that the Murray brothers, Jamie and Andy, will play for the British on Saturday, but the Belgians had a lot to discuss over their Friday dinner. The nominated pair of Steve Darcis and Kimmer Coppejans is merely that: a nomination. Darcis seems likely to play, but probably partnering Goffin or Bemelmans. Belgian’s captain Johan van Herck said he didn’t know what his pairing would be but accepted that Goffin with either Darcis or Bemelmans was “a possibility.”

Murray denied that the doubles would be as crucial as in some Davis Cup encounters, but he is probably talking up his team’s chances in a fifth rubber more than he actually believes in them. If it went to a fifth, the Belgians would be favourites, which is why Murray will know he really has to win on Saturday and Sunday to take the fifth rubber out of it.

Davis Cup, Great Britain vs Belgium: ‘A rare local derby final’

davis cup SD petco

This year’s Davis Cup final between Belgium and Great Britain harks back to the early years of the team competition. But, as Chris Bowers explained earlier this year, the historical perspective serves as a trigger for looking forward to some possible imminent changes in the Davis Cup format.

Here’s a quiz question – which is the only country to have taken part in the Davis Cup every year it has been staged?

Most people would answer the USA. After all, Dwight Davis was the US nationals champion when he founded the competition in Boston, and the Davis Cup remained the property of the US Tennis Association until 1979 when the International Tennis Federation took it over.

But they’d be wrong. The only nation to have played every year is Great Britain, albeit until 1912 the Brits were known as the British Isles (a term coined in the days when Ireland was ruled from London). After losing to the British in the 1903 Challenge Round, the USA couldn’t afford the trip to Wimbledon in 1904. So the British asked who wanted to take the Americans’ place, and received expressions of interest from France, Belgium and Austria. Ultimately the Austrians couldn’t afford the trip either, so Belgium and France played the first-ever Davis Cup tie on British soil for the right to play the Brits in the final, a right won by the Belgians who were then hammered 5-0.

It’s worth remembering this, because while the British endured a notorious 76-year wait for their first Slam champion since 1936, a 77-year wait for their first Wimbledon champion since 1936, and now a 79-year wait for a first Davis Cup title since 1936, the Belgians have waited 111 years to avenge their drubbing by the Doherty brothers and Frank Riseley at the old Wimbledon courts in Worple Road.

Both the Davis Cup and the world are very different places now. The inclusion of new nations in just the fourth staging of the competition meant the Davis Cup quickly grew from an Anglo-American affair to an international team competition. And the genteel conviviality that characterised those early years disappeared long ago, in fact much of it evaporated in the 1930s when the British had their last golden age of tennis.

The leading figure was Fred Perry, an affable, jocular and extremely confident man from a working class background in the north of England, whose father was a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party. Perry was barely tolerated by many British tennis establishment figures that resented his determination to win. Before his death in 1995, Perry delighted in telling the story of how he overheard an official of the All England Club suggesting to Jack Crawford, whom Perry had beaten in the 1933 Wimbledon final, that the wrong man had won. Crawford may have been an Aussie, but he played by the etiquette Wimbledon expected, whereas Perry’s competitiveness reinforced the fact that he had gone to a state school, not a private school.

When critics say today’s British team is over dependent on Andy Murray, they overlook the fact that the 1930s British team was heavily dependent on Perry, despite the presence of an accomplished second singles player in Bunny Austin. When Perry turned professional at the end of 1936, Britain’s golden era ended, and the same may happen when Murray hangs up his rackets in a few years.

If the British can be labelled a one-man team, so can the Belgians. David Goffin has played the Murray role all year, and Belgium’s second-highest ranked player – Steve Darcis at 85 – is only 14 places ahead of Britain’s likely second player Kyle Edmund. That’s why Murray’s 6-1, 6-0 win over Goffin at the Paris Masters two weeks ago was such a shock to the Belgians – Goffin has to win his singles on day one, but with the chances of him beating Murray very low, he may well play in the doubles which Belgium has to win.

Unless Murray suffers some kind of injury or finds the transition from the hard courts of London to the makeshift clay of Ghent difficult, it’s hard to see anything other than a 10th British title, and an end to the 79-year wait. Murray would then have reset the British tennis clock in every respect, having won Olympic gold, the US Open, Wimbledon and the Davis Cup. His country should expect nothing more of him, and treat the remainder of his career as a bonus.

The Davis Cup itself may be about to change. The current World Group format was introduced in 1981 to reduce the Davis Cup commitment by the top players to a maximum of four weeks a year from the previous six. That breathed new life into the competition, but during the 16 years of Francesco Ricci-Bitti’s reign as ITF president, he had to fend off constant suggestions that the players were a bit half-hearted about Davis Cup. That’s somewhat unfair, most players love the honour of playing for their country, and a study commissioned by the ITF in 2009 suggested the Davis Cup generates an annual economic impact of $184 million worldwide. But with many marquee players picking and choosing their ties, there has been the perception of a problem.

Now Ricci-Bitti has made way for Dave Haggerty, an American who makes no secret of his fondness of the ‘final four’ format where the four semi-finalists meet in one city and play semis and final in one week. Haggerty is making all the right noises about the need to respect the magic of the home-and-away format, and the importance of the lower tiers to the growth of tennis in a number of countries, but he is clearly eyeing up a change in the Davis Cup’s culmination, which is the jewel in the ITF’s crown. He may find it hard to get all his changes through the ITF’s legislative process, and the earliest any changes would come into effect would be 2018, but the winds of change look set to blow through Dwight Davis’s 115-year-old competition.

It means this final may be one of the last in which one team is guaranteed to be at home. And with the British just a couple of hours’ train or boat ride away from the hosts, the 2015 final has all the makings of a rare local derby final.

‘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)

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Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both warmed up for Wimbledon this week by playing on grass in Halle, Germany. It

The US Davis Cup team as shaped by Captain Courier

FROM THE US VS. SWITZERLAND DAVIS CUP TIE IN FRIBOURG – Throughout his playing career, Jim Courier was known as one of the great workers. He wasn?t short of talent, but while the likes of Ilie Nastase, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer got to the top by finding a work ethic to go with their sublime natural gifts, Courier belongs in the category of those whose determination to make the most of what he had drove him to the very top.

Those attributes are starting to show in the US Davis Cup team Courier is now captain of. He is too smart to take the limelight away from his players, notably John Isner, the architect of the USA?s astonishing 5-0 victory over Switzerland, but there’?s no doubt the culture Courier is instilling into the US Davis Cup team is one where defeat can be tolerated, but only as long as the task has been approached in the right way.



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Federer Appears Ambivalent About Davis Cup

Federer doesn't seem very inspired by the Davis Cup. Lum photo


By Chris Bowers, Special to TennisReporters.net