Above all else, tennis is a game for and about the individual. That is the essence of the sport. A player steps out in isolation on a court for a demanding and often gut-wrenching job that is done entirely on his own. Battles are fought ferociously through long afternoons, under arduous circumstances, over strenuous, exacting and trying periods of time. In all of the majors—and every time they compete in a tournament of any kind—it is up to the individual to confront adversity and move past fear toward serenity and success. That is why the world of tennis is inhabited at the top only by those with unshakable resolve, extraordinary poise under pressure, and an authentic sense of self.
And yet, the competitive spectrum is altered radically when the players assemble to represent their nations in Davis Cup. Enter Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, two of the top four ranked players in the world, a pair of highly motivated people driven by similarly large dreams. These two men joined forces to lead Switzerland to a first ever Davis Cup Championship. Only one week earlier, they had been sharply at odds in London. Federer saved four match points in the semifinals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals against his compatriot, and that riveting encounter was overshadowed by controversy and a contentious discussion between the two players afterwards. Federer’s wife, Mirka, had unnerved Wawrinka by seemingly taunting him with remarks from the stands during the match.
There was bad blood all around following that incident, and then Federer defaulted the London final to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic because of an ailing back the next day. There was considerable doubt in the tennis community about whether or not the two Swiss gentlemen could put their personal differences aside and reunite for their country at Lille, France in the Cup Final. But both Wawrinka and Federer did just that, performing with immense vitality to topple the French contingent 3-1. In many ways, it was the Swiss No. 2 Wawrinka who played the lead role for his country; the 29-year-old put them out in front 1-0 with a four set triumph over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Gael Monfils bludgeoned Federer in the second singles match, but the next day Wawrinka was the best player on the court as he and Federer took apart Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet in a straight set doubles contest.
That win gave the Swiss a 2-1 lead, and then a majestic Federer cast aside Gasquet in straight sets to seal it all for his team. Gasquet was replacing an injured Tsonga, and the poor fellow never had a chance; French captain Arnaud Clement should have gone with Gilles Simon rather than Gasquet as his backup man. This was a mismatch of major proportions, essentially a lightweight against a heavyweight, a fine shotmaker with a fragile psyche against the man many authorities believe is the best of all time. Making matters even more daunting for Gasquet was the growing sense that Federer was on a mission. Gasquet had won only 2 of 14 meetings with Federer over the course of their careers, although both victories for the Frenchman had occurred on clay—at Monte Carlo back in 2005 and again in Rome six years later.
That may have provided the lean Frenchman with a mild dose of encouragement. But the fact remained that both of Gasquet’s wins over Federer were settled in final set tie-breaks. Federer had skipped the Swiss team practices until Wednesday to protect his burdensome back, and only hit briefly for about twenty minutes that day, without any exertion. He practiced again on Thursday, and only then did he decide he would go through with his plans to participate.
He moved gingerly at times against Monfils, who thoroughly outplayed him on Friday. The dynamic Frenchman was unstoppable and even a fully healthy Federer would almost surely have lost that duel. In the doubles, his physical state was decidedly better. By the time he took the court Sunday to face Gasquet, Federer was sprightly, energetic, flexible and able to do anything he wanted. His serve was what guaranteed the victory. He never even faced a break point in three immaculate sets, winning 21 of 25 points on his delivery in the first set, 16 of 19 in the second set, and 18 of 25 in the third. Altogether, he took 55 of 69 service points on the indoor red clay (just shy of 80%). With those scintillating numbers, there was no way Federer was going to lose as he performed in front of a record crowd of 27, 448.
Yet he did not merely serve prodigiously. His rich and full arsenal was on display, and Gasquet was overwhelmed by the onslaught of scorching inside out forehands, delicate and elegant backhand drop shots, timely attacking, sound execution at the net, and supreme variety off the backhand that emanated from the racket of Federer. Gasquet had absolutely no chance to impose himself with Federer in such sparkling form, even with his signature one-handed backhand. Federer broke that shot down comprehensively with pace and panache off his own one-handed topspin backhand. Federer broke serve for 2-1 in the opening set with a winning down the line forehand passing shot that gave him immediate and lasting momentum. Federer was down 0-30 in the fourth game but he rolled to 40-30 before netting a drop shot.
That hardly mattered. Federer held from deuce for 3-1, and thereafter his rhythm on serve was outstanding. He closed out that 6-4 set with a run of three straight love games on his delivery. Gasquet, meanwhile, was under constant siege. His first serve was not big enough to prevent Federer from driving rather than chipping his backhand returns. That was a bad omen for the Frenchman. Gasquet was ever hard pressed to hold. He saved a break point on his way to 3-4, and fought off three set points before holding for 4-5. Federer was in utter control. Serving for the set at 5-4, Federer was letter perfect. He went to 15-0 with an inside out forehand winner, and followed with a winning forehand drop volley, an unanswerable backhand approach, and a crosscourt forehand winner released effortlessly. That love hold was emblematic of the entire match. First set to Federer, 6-4.
In the second set, Federer strongly sensed he was on his way to a decisive victory. He broke Gasquet in the opening game, held at love with an ace out wide for 2-0, and the die was cast. Federer served a love game for 3-1, produced two aces in holding at 30 for 4-2, and then broke at 15 for 5-2. He served out that set at love, opening with a pair of inside in forehand winner before releasing an impeccable body serve. At 40-0, he angled a backhand drop shot sharply crosscourt for a dazzling winner. Second set to Federer, 6-2.
In the fifth game of the third set, Federer broke for 3-2, and he was by then untouchable. With Gasquet serving at 2-4, the hapless Frenchman had a couple of game points but Federer was unrelenting, gaining the insurance break. He closed it out in style with another love hold, reaching 40-0 with a forehand winner behind Gasquet. At triple match point, he sent a sidespin backhand drop shot down the line, and it landed softly and safely for a winner. Match to Federer, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2. Across the board, he was at his very best, as masterful as he could have been. In turn, Gasquet was feeble and almost defeatist. No wonder he is now 2-13 against Federer, 1-10 against Djokovic and 0-13 versus Nadal. Gasquet can’t stay with those top players because his forehand is not sound enough and his serve lacks firepower. Federer knew he could totally control the outcome of the skirmish; serving so sublimely made the task even simpler for him to close the deal for Switzerland.
With France and Switzerland locked at 1-1, the doubles was pivotal. Tsonga was unavailable with his arm injury, and so Clement went with Benneteau and Gasquet. With so much riding on the outcome of this confrontation, Federer and Wawrinka had to suit up. Much was made of the fact that the Swiss duo had lost their last four Cup assignments, but that was misleading in some respects. They did, after all, capture the gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games, knocking off the Bryan brothers in Beijing. Some of those Davis Cup losses for Wawrinka and Federer were products of Wawrinka’s fluctuating state of confidence.
Meanwhile, Swiss captain Severin Luthi wisely hired the wily Australian David Macpherson to provide tactical and strategic guidance for his players in doubles. Macpherson coaches the Bryan brothers and knows today’s game of doubles at the top as well as anyone. Two other factors were very beneficial to the Swiss against Benneteau and Gasquet. Federer was far more nimble and comfortable physically than he was against Monfils in singles, and Wawrinka was soaring after defeating Tsonga in the singles. The effusiveness of the Swiss tandem was apparent from the outset, with Federer stationed in the deuce court and making inside out backhand returns automatically, while Wawrinka took care of matters from the ad court with his magnificent crosscourt backhand.
Both Wawrinka and Federer were exceedingly well prepared. They kept their returns low, and then peppered the French combination with a barrage of shots down the middle. On their own serves, the two Swiss competitors crossed at all the right times and volleyed terrifically—except for a brief spell in the second set when Federer lost conviction at the net. As for the Frenchman, Benneteau returned poorly off the forehand in the first set from the deuce court, and Gasquet’s forehand return was abysmal all the way through.
The Swiss team broke Benneteau for a 4-2 and that carried them through the first set, which they won 6-3. In the second set, Switzerland lived dangerously. Federer saved a break point at 0-1 with a gusty play, sending a first volley right at the net man Benneteau and then winning the point on his next shot. He held on for 1-1. Wawrinka was down 15-40 in the fourth game but he held on for 2-2. At 3-4, Wawrinka needed to save two more break points, but he was fully up to the task, and the Swiss team made it to 4-4. With Gasquet serving at 5-5, 15-40, Federer laced a topspin backhand return behind the poaching Benneteau, making an outright winner. Wawrinka served out the set at love.
That was more than the Frenchman could handle emotionally. Benneteau was broken at 2-2 in the third set, and there was no halting the Swiss. Federer held at love at 5-4 to close out a 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 victory. Neither Swiss man lost his serve. They sparkled all the way through.Many observers were skeptical that Wawrinka could recover so quickly from not only his agonizing loss to Federer in London, but also the altercation. But he was first rate in the leadoff match against Tsonga. Wawrinka attacked almost at will, serving-and-volleying with selective success, working his way in behind good approaches, outplaying Tsonga from the baseline. Tsonga wanted to break down the Wawrinka forehand, but that did not work. Wawrinka had much success using his inside out forehand to get to Tsonga’s weaker backhand wing. In the meantime, Wawrinka returned much better than Tsonga, who was not locating his first delivery particularly well.
Wawrinka secured four games in a row from 2-1 in the opening set to move commandingly out in front, taking that set in 26 efficient minutes. Tsonga saved a crucial break point in the first game of the second set. Wawrinka imploded briefly at 1-2, double faulting as he went down the T for a second serve ace. He knew he was rolling the dice needlessly. Tsonga made that break count, and took the set 6-3. It was one set all. The two players were level at 2-2 in the third, but Wawrinka swept 12 of 15 points to reach 5-2. Tsonga managed to hold on from 15-40 in the eighth game and then Wawrinka trailed 0-30. But a spectacular forehand inside in winner got Wawrinka back in that game. He had a set point at 40-30, only to release another double fault.
From there, however, Wawrinka was unbending. He made a forehand crosscourt winner to earn a second set point. The Swiss was ready for this one, defending capably before angling a backhand crosscourt with authority to provoke and error from Wawrinka. The set had gone to Switzerland, 6-3. Tsonga was not in the highly charged state when he plays his most inspired tennis. He double faulted at 30-30 in the opening game of the fourth set, and soon lost his serve. Wawrinka was devoid of doubts. From 3-2 in the fourth, he took 12 of 17 points to finish off a 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory. Wawrinka was the better man from the baseline but he distinguished himself even more with the clarity of his aggressive play, attacking intelligently, volleying beautifully, locking Tsonga out of the match.
That win for Switzerland meant that Monfils was carrying a heavy burden when he faced Federer in the second match. For France to prevail, Monfils could not afford to lose. Although he was only 2-8 across his career against Federer, he had played remarkably well against the Swiss Maestro in their last three meetings. At Shanghai in 2013, Monfils toppled Federer. In Cincinnati this year, Federer ousted Monfils 6-4, 4-6 6-3, and then the Frenchman had Federer on the brink in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, building a two sets to love lead and holding two match points with the Swiss serving at 4-5 in the fourth set before tamely conceding the fifth.
This time around, Monfils came out firing, especially on serve. Federer—perhaps not knowing what to expect from himself after so little time on the clay leading up to the match—was tentative in his play and less mobile than usual. But the big story was the way Monfils performed. He picked up where he left off against Federer in New York, mixing offense and defense convincingly, taking the initiative whenever possible. His running forehand was tremendous. He flattened out his backhand, and used the down the line shot off that side boldly and wisely. He gave away almost nothing, and did not allow Federer to set the tactical agenda.
But the key to everything was the Monfils serve. He made the clay court look very fast at times with the velocity of his delivery. To a large extent he served Federer right off that court. Monfils broke the Swiss for 3-1 with an inside out forehand drawing a backhand error on the stretch from Federer, who looked cautious moving to defend that shot. The fifth game of that opening set was critical. It went to deuce five times. Federer had two break points. Monfils needed four game points. But the charismatic Frenchman held on for 4-1, serving his seventh ace of the set in the course of that game. He broke Federer again for 5-1. Serving at 5-1, 15-0, Monfils seemed astonished when Federer tried to call him out for taking too much time on his serve. “How many times are you going to do that?” said Federer.
Federer was way out of line to address his opponent directly. He should have complained to his captain and let Luthi speak with the umpire. That was regrettable. But Monfils maintained his concentration. He served his eighth and ninth aces of the set for 40-0, and held at love on an unforced error from Federer. The Frenchman took the set 6-1 in a mere 31 minutes. Monfils refused to allow Federer to find any foothold in the match, breaking the Swiss in the third game of the second set. After Federer had rallied from 15-40 to deuce, Monfils garnered a third break point with a stinging forehand down the line on the run. Federer tried responding with a backhand slice, but missed. On break point, Monfils directed a backhand crosscourt with good depth. A Federer forehand inside in found the bottom of the net.
Monfils was allowing Federer no chances to retaliate, dropping only five points in five service games during that second set. At 5-4, he held at love, reaching 30-0 with a forehand winner down the line, moving to 40-0 with a forehand down the line that was unstoppable, taking the next point with a flattened out backhand crosscourt that coaxed Federer into another mistake.
The Frenchman was ahead two sets to love, enjoying the same lead he had established at the U.S. Open before Federer rescued himself mightily. There would be no such recovery this time. In the fifth game of the third set, Monfils got the break. At deuce, Federer followed his second serve in, angling a backhand volley crosscourt acutely. Monfils passed him cleanly down the line. Federer was struggling, missing five of eight first serves in that game. Down break point, he pulled a forehand inside in wide. Monfils had advanced to 3-2. Serving at 40-30 in the next game, he pulled off another admirable backhand down the line passing shot. Federer held one more time for 3-4, but Monfils remained unswerving, surprisingly so. He held at 15 for 5-3, and then broke Federer at 30, driving a two-hander down the line for a winner off an inside out forehand from the Swiss. Monfils captured the match stylishly, prevailing 6-1, 6-4, 6-3. He never lost his serve in three sets, broke Federer five times, and performed with a controlled aggression that his fans would love to see become his motto. He won 34 of 38 first serve points on the indoor clay.
That Federer defeat surely left Swiss loyalists deeply concerned. How would Federer respond to that resounding setback? Over the next couple of days, perhaps buoyed by a revitalized Wawrinka, his play improved markedly, and Switzerland was the victorious nation in Davis Cup for the first time. Federer downplayed what it meant personally, emphasizing how it was not about him. According to Federer, this was a triumph for his teammates and his country. But the fact remains that he surely values the victory enormously.
Just about every other all-time great player—from Tilden to Budge, Kramer to Rosewall, Laver to Connors, McEnroe to Sampras, Emerson to Borg, Nadal to Djokovic—has celebrated at least one Davis Cup championship for their country. It was high time that Federer joined those players in this category. It was particularly commendable because he played all four ties in 2014 for Switzerland along with Wawrinka, a serious commitment of time, passion and energy.
Fans and historians will now consider how to weigh this triumph when considering Federer as quite possibly the best player of all time. He already has the record with those 17 majors in singles. He won both Wimbledon (2003-2007) and the U.S. Open (2004-2008 five years in a row, a feat that no other man has matched. He stands among the elite group of seven players who have won all four majors in singles. He has finished five years (2004-2007, and 2009) as the top ranked player in the world, and set another record by reaching the semifinals or better in no less than 23 consecutive Grand Slam events. Now he has added another very important historical nugget to his resume with the Davis Cup.
In my view—despite a 10-23 career record against Nadal that includes losses in six of eight finals and nine of eleven overall meetings at the majors—Federer has strengthened his case as the greatest ever to play the game by virtue of this latest victory. The only prestigious prize he could add to his sterling collection would be an Olympic gold medal in singles. The debate will rage on among the sport’s most learned enthusiasts. If Nadal manages to catch Federer for the most major titles in the men’s game, the case for the Spaniard as G.O.A.T. would be compelling, and he is three behind the Swiss with 14, tied with Pete Sampras. For the time being, Federer stands alone at the top in my view as the player with the most diversified record, the longest run of consistency, and the widest range of talent. He has placed another significant feather in his cap.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.
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