On a certain undeniable level, the big banner headline for the 2014 Davis Cup Final is simply this: ROGER FEDERER WINS ELUSIVE DAVIS CUP TITLE, ADDING TO HIS LEGACY.
When any athlete with Federer’s level of stature and centrality wins a prestigious championship for the first time at a latter point in his or her career, it’s a big deal. It should be. This is a point which does not have to be explained.
What does have to be explained is how central Federer was — and wasn’t — in winning Switzerland’s first Davis Cup title, enabling the nation to become the 14th to win international tennis’s most coveted prize.
The answer is not a simple one, but it is fundamentally a both-and answer, not an either-or equation.
Tennis fans know that Davis Cup tennis is unlike regular-tournament tennis, and it’s also unlike that other international competition which has only (relatively) recently become a point of comparison among tennis pros: the Summer Olympics.
Davis Cup is a three-day event, not a week-long festival. It’s concentrated tennis, in which singles players — should they play doubles — have to endure three emotionally and physically demanding days of competition. It is an event in which singles and doubles performances are blended together, and in which the doubles match carries more weight for singles superstars than at any other point in a year, possibly a career.
This is a unique beast in tennis. Davis Cup requires doubles expertise if singles domination proves to be elusive. Moreover, singles domination can prove to be elusive precisely because players who struggle to succeed within the framework of a full-week ATP tournament are able to focus themselves for two singles matches on a weekend.
Consider how Gael Monfils — now 10-2 in Davis Cup rubbers — flew across the court inside Pierre Mauroy Stadium in Lille, France, on Friday. Monfils, who has never reached a major final and has never won any ATP tournament beyond the 250 level, was a reborn player in Friday’s second singles match against Federer. Monfils feeds off the energy of a nationalistic crowd. The adrenaline created by Davis Cup is perfectly suited to Monfils’s temperament and disposition. This kind of dynamic makes singles matches more contentious; even if Federer had not been concerned about overextending his body in that match, following the injury he suffered on Nov. 15 at the ATP World Tour Finals in London, Monfils would have been a very tough out.
Federer could have won if he hadn’t been so cautious, but let’s say for the sake of argument that he didn’t. How would Switzerland have managed to win its first Davis Cup with Federer losing the first singles match due to Monfils’s outstanding performance?
The starting point was the man who has so long been called “the other Swiss,” but who used 2014 to become a man in full in the global tennis community.
There were so many points in 2014 when it was both easy and even somewhat logical to doubt the ability of Stan Wawrinka to remain a major force in tennis. Definitions of what a “major force” means would naturally determine the level of one’s doubt, but if the standards were set high enough, such doubts were reasonable, though quite debatable.
Wawrinka wobbled in the Davis Cup quarterfinals against Kazakhstan. He flamed out in Madrid and didn’t last very long in Rome. He couldn’t solve Kevin Anderson in multiple Masters 1000 tournaments. He lost in the first round at Roland Garros, bowing out meekly in sets three and four against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. He lost in Cincinnati to Julien Benneteau. Wawrinka spent portions of 2014 tossing in erratic and hugely disappointing results. For this basic reason, it was easy and — again — not bereft of logic to question Wawrinka’s staying power in men’s tennis.
However, if Wawrinka’s losses were conspicuous and highly discouraging in the present moment, what was always underrated about his 2014 season (after the Australian Open title in January) was that he regularly bounced back — not quickly, but eventually.
Wawrinka bounced back from his messy March and his knee-quaking Davis Cup quarter by winning the Monte Carlo Masters and denying a man named Federer his first Monte Carlo title, one of the few tennis prizes the 33-year-old has not yet won (and might never win).
Wawrinka bounced back from his rotten Roland Garros performance and made the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, on his worst surface, before Federer played a steely second-set tiebreaker and prevailed in four entertaining sets.
Wawrinka bounced back from the loss to Benneteau in Cincinnati and put together a solid U.S. Open. Kei Nishikori, who pieced together a breakthrough season on tour, was able to fend him off with terrific shotmaking in the best (two-way) men’s match of that whole U.S. Open.
Wawrinka bounced back from a familiar loss to Anderson in Paris-Bercy by storming to the semifinals of the World Tour Finals last week in London. He gained four match points against Federer, but couldn’t win any of them. Then came the drama you might have read about last week at Attacking The Net.
It was reasonable to doubt if Stan Wawrinka could get over all the drama of the previous week. It was reasonable to doubt if Wawrinka could immediately shake off a huge disappointment, not to mention a moment soured by bitterness and a sense that he wasn’t being treated the way he should have been. (The point here is not to weigh in on that matter, only to say that Wawrinka’s week was marked by inner turmoil.)
Given Federer’s uncertain health and the way Monfils flourished on Friday, it was really rather clear: Wawrinka had to win that first singles match — not only to avoid a 2-0 deficit for Switzerland after day one, but to set a positive tone and enable the doubles match to matter. Wawrinka did his job in a convincing win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It was an occasion to lead not by words, but actions, and that’s precisely what Wawrinka achieved. This was the cornerstone of Switzerland’s victory. No Wawrinka triumph on Friday, no Davis Cup on Sunday — not likely, at any rate.
Then, however, came Saturday’s doubles, and this is where Federer’s contribution to Switzerland’s victory became most apparent. This is also where Swiss captain Severin Luthi (Federer’s coach, one must remember; Stefan Edberg is part of the team, but Luthi is the coach) made his biggest and most lasting contribution to this historic championship for the alpine nation which stands above all the others in 2014.
The emergent story from Saturday’s doubles match — in which Federer and Wawrinka blew away the French team of Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet in straight sets — was the crispness with which the Swiss team covered the court. Reactions were very clear and informed, a marked departure from “Fedrinka’s” fumbling ways in the doubles match during the quarterfinal tie against Kazakhstan, in which the Swiss were amiss and generally lost at sea.
Where did this Swiss precision come from? It came from Luthi… but not from Luthi’s mouth. Therein lies the paradox at the heart of Switzerland’s mountaintop moment: This title was won because the men you expect to lead with their actions were instead the ones who led with their words. The men you expect to lead with their words instead led with their actions. The player — Wawrinka — whose mental toughness was doubted so often in 2014 became the most mentally tough player on the Swiss side (not that Federer was chopped liver, of course). The three men at the heart of this Swiss victory showed a different side of themselves, a new side of themselves, and these new dimensions are what created the 3-1 win over France.
What does it mean to say that Luthi brought about Saturday’s precise doubles performance from his team, but not by way of his mouth?
It’s because he hired another coach to do the doubles coaching.
David Macpherson, the coach of the ATP’s world No. 1 doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan, was brought in by Luthi to offer some pointers. One element of supreme irony of this move could be found in the fact that Federer and Wawrinka — with less doubles acumen but much younger bodies — beat the Bryans in the 2008 Olympic semifinals in Beijing, en route to the Olympic gold medal Federer and Wawrinka will always have in their trophy chests. For Luthi to even ask Macpherson required — and represented — an ability of a coach to step out of his comfort zone and seek the team’s interests above his own reputation as the mastermind behind a good result.
Macpherson’s methods clearly worked, and he expressed his admiration for Federer and Wawrinka following the clinical performance from the 2008 Olympic champions:
A brilliant performance and courageous victory for Roger and Stan today here in Lille. An inspiring day.
— David Macpherson (@DavidMacTennis) November 22, 2014
What Severin Luthi did represented the subjugation of the ego for the betterment of the team. This theme ran through everything else which happened in the Swiss camp over the past week… and this is where Roger Federer truly made the biggest contribution to this victory, a contribution which will easily be overlooked in the wake of Federer’s solid doubles performance and his fluid demolition of a weary Gasquet in Sunday’s anticlimactic clincher.
The biggest contribution Roger Federer made to Switzerland’s first Davis Cup title — other than bailing out Wawrinka in the quarterfinals in April — came in London late on the night of Saturday, Nov. 15. It was on that night when Federer had to deal with a conflict involving his wife and Wawrinka. That’s not your run-of-the-mill tennis problem. Federer — it was reported — led the discussion with Wawrinka behind closed doors. Federer had to be the one to not only resolve a messy issue, but play an important role in re-focusing his teammate for the coming week. It would have been all too human for Wawrinka to have carried negativity into this Davis Cup Final. It would have been all too understandable for him to lament the missed opportunity to face Novak Djokovic in the championship match of one of tennis’s most lucrative tournaments. It would have been entirely natural for Wawrinka to allow himself to be distracted and bothered.
Clearly, Wawrinka’s head space was abundant in France. His body was right, his mind even more so. That’s Federer’s true achievement over the past few days. This could have become a clash of egos — and let’s not pretend tennis players, as primarily solo athletes, don’t have raging egos — but Federer offered focus and perspective. He reset the dial for Wawrinka in a Davis Cup context, providing insights Wawrinka’s normal (tour) coach, Magnus Norman, wasn’t in a position to provide.
Purely in terms of tennis on the court, Federer’s contributions to Switzerland’s win will receive most of the publicity from the global press. To that extent, Federer’s contributions will be overrated.
However, Federer’s leadership — on that Saturday night in London and over the course of the week, all while being uncertain how his back would respond after tweaking it on Nov. 15 — represents what will be a hugely underrated contribution to the Swiss cause.
And so we’re left with this: Making sense of Switzerland’s ascendancy on the final weekend of the 2014 tennis season is a complicated process. Federer, Wawrinka and Luthi all made powerful — and powerfully underrated or underappreciated (or both) — contributions to this moment of Swiss bliss.
What stands out, though — amidst all the curiosity about how this would enhance Federer’s legacy if he won, and how this would hurt his legacy if he lost — is that Federer’s greatest contribution was not his actual tennis, but his presence as someone who commanded Stan Wawrinka’s respect and trust in a moment of difficulty. Wawrinka did the deed, and it is — as always in sports — up to the player to perform when asked. Yet, Federer — so often the man who overshadowed Wawrinka, so often the man Wawrinka would be asked about after what should have been his own moments in the sun to relish — is the man who helped enable his friend to step into the spotlight and claim this place in history:
— BATennisWorld (@BATennisWorld) November 23, 2014
Yes, Federer talked about a team victory after clinching the tie, but you know he wanted this badly for himself. Of course he did. He teared up after winning.
Yet, one can say that Federer was masking the truth and yet telling the truth at the same time. He accepted coaching from Macpherson, a doubles specialist. He bought into Luthi’s plan instead of refusing it. Many egocentric athletes have done such things before, and would do so in similar situations.
Not Federer. Not this time.
The one whose ego is undeniably massive (not that that’s a crime or even a fault — of course athletes have egos… it’s how they become great…) was willing to subjugate it in just the right ways at just the right times, giving his captain and his starring teammate a chance to help him on the road to a precious piece of tennis history.
Paradoxically, it’s this subjugation of the athlete’s ego which will enable Federer’s legacy to grow that much more when he hits his final shot… whenever that might be.