‘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.

The last of the great Davis Cup finals? 

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

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

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

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

Roger, The Man

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

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

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

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

Time to get down to business

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is … if Assuming Federer and Wawrinka stay fit.

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