I can think of at least one player at the U.S. vs. Switzerland first-round Davis Cup tie who may have been waiting for a long time for this to take place. Almost three years long, in fact. That would be Stanislas Wawrinka, who will open the tie against American No. 1 Mardy Fish tomorrow on the slow clay of the Forum Fribourg.
The last time the Swiss and U.S. were drawn to play was on U.S. soil (in Birmingham, Ala.) at the beginning of 2009. That tie had the makings of a classic, what with U.S. Davis Cup stalwarts Andy Roddick, James Blake, and the brothers Bryan hoping to find their way to a win by somehow getting around what you might call the "Roger Federer problem."
As it turned out, all of then-captain Pat McEnroe's anxieties were greatly reduced when, just days before the tie, that problem went away. Roger Fedrerer pulled out, citing a sore back. This put Wawrinka on the hot seat, because the chances of new Swiss No. 2 Marco Chiudinelli stealing a win were slim to none. The Swiss would be lucky to avoid a whitewash.
One of the terrific things about Davis Cup is that it's always a kind of celebration of tennis—I'm not even sure all of that flag-waving, those patriotic ensembles, or that thunderous chanting are heartfelt expressions of nationalism as much as nationalism just happens to be a convenient excuse for getting all dressed up, shouting, and doing silly things. Kind of like going to the Rocky Horror Picture Show used to be. But in any event. . .
The large crowds that turned out helped make the tie in Birmingham a fun, exciting, electric event on a sunny spring weekend in the southland, Federer's withdrawal nonwithstanding. Give Wawrinka an assist in that success story, because he ensured the tie would have a modicum of drama when he opened the ball with a great display of power-baseline tennis, knocking off Blake in four sets.
The Swiss would win just one more set the rest of the way, as Roddick handled Chiudinelli with ease, the Bryans quelled the surprisingly stubborn Swiss doubles team of Wawrinka and Yves Allegro, and Roddick completed a neat 4-4-2 win over Wawrinka in the fourth rubber to seal the tie.
You could understand Wawrinka feeling abandoned and lonely last time, but it's different now. Let's just say he has adequate "back up" in his pal Roger, the all-time Grand Slam singles title champ who will play No. 1 for the Swiss.
The Swiss also have home-court advantage in the fullest sense, as the tie will be played not just before a sea of red-and-white jerseys, but on slow indoor clay. That ties in with the third difference, which is that only one man on the present U.S. squad was on the side that won in Birmingham: Mike Bryan (Bob, his doubles partner and brother, is back at home in California familiarizing himself with the joys of changing diapers).
Despite the different venue and surface, Wawrinka and Fish doesn't have the look of a cakewalk for the Swiss. Fish is bound to remember and draw inspiration from that remarkable job he did on clay in the high-altitude of Bogota, winning all three of his matches in a crucial World Group playoff tie (he partnered with John Isner in the doubles). Fish is also No. 8 on the ATP computer—20 rungs higher than Wawrinka. And the American is 2-0 against the Wawrinka, although both of those wins were on hard courts.
In fact, Wawrinka is a combined 1-4 against the American singles players, Fish and Isner. That record includes just one match on clay, and it wasn't Wawrinka who won it. Isner beat him on the slow stuff in Belgrade in 2010. The open secret, in my mind, is that Wawrinka is a somewhat ponderous player who isn't as nimble as the best clay-court players. A lean and quick Fish will pose plenty of questions.
Of course, this still leaves U.S. captain Jim Courier with what might still be called the "Roger Federer problem." Federer will meet Isner in the second match on Friday, and I have a strong suspicion that Courier's last words to Isner will be, "Whatever happens, just make sure you keep him out there as long as humanly possible."
The best strategy, if that word is appropriate, is to use the slow clay in the only way it can be seen to have a hidden benefit for the U.S.—as a surface on which to wear down the 30-year old Grand Slam warrior. For Federer is penciled in to play in the doubles as well as the singles.
We don't know yet how the new U.S. doubles team of Mike Bryan and Davis Cup rookie Ryan Harrison will work out, so that's a big question mark—especially as they're nominated to play the defending Olympic doubles gold medalists, Federer and Wawrinka. It's hard to imagine the U.S. winning this tie without taking the doubles, and no matter how well Federer plays there's always the chance that the doubles will be a grind—because that's just how doubles is.
A tough—or at least lengthy—singles match on Day 1 and a bear of a doubles (say, 8-6 in the fifth) match could leave Federer worn down for Day 3, when he would open the proceedings with his match against Fish (the fourth rubber is always the battle between the No. 1 players). Federer is 7-1 against Fish (they have never played on clay) and 2-0 against Isner.
The obvious symmetry between the edge the American players have on Wawrinka and the disadvantage they're under against Federer suggests that if neither team pulls any surprise substitutions, the way the players (particularly the U.S. players) handle the clay will be a big factor, as will the doubles and, should the U.S. catch fire, the relative fitness of Federer or Wawrinka on the final day.
Incidentally, given the disproportionate size of these nations and their equally lopsided history in Davis Cup, the U.S. and Switzerland have as rich and colorful a history as you can expect from nations that have met on just three previous occasions.
In 1992, a U.S. "dream team" (Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and John McEnroe) prevailed over the Swiss in a surprisingly tough and sometimes tense final in Dallas, 4-1. The Swiss had just a two-man team consisting of Marc Rosset and Jakob Hlasek.
Then, in 2001, Andy Roddick made his debut as a U.S. Davis Cup player (alongside Todd Martin and Jan-Michael Gambill) in a tie against Switzerland in a first-round World Group battle in Basel, and joined his countrymen in a state of awe as Federer—a 19-year old youngster playing in just his fifth Davis Cup tie—won all three of his matches (partnered with Lorenzo Manta in doubles) to seal Switzerland's lone win.
We'll see what the weekend brings in this surprisingly unpredictable rivalry.