The Rally: Roger Returns & More Davis Cup Discussion

Thursday, January 30, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Steve Tignor will return to Rally next week; in the meantime, Ed McGrogan and Richard Pagliaro exchange thoughts about another high-profile return—that of Roger Federer, who unexpectedly announced that he'll play in Switzerland's first-round Davis Cup tie against Serbia.


Richard,

Davis Cup just got a little more interesting with the news that Roger Federer will join Australian Open champion—and, perhaps more significantly, new Swiss No. 1—Stanislas Wawrinka for this weekend's tie in Serbia. Well, maybe not this weekend, as SUI vs. SRB is a colossal mismatch, with Dusan Lajovic, rather than Novak Djokovic, leading the Serbian effort in singles. And without Janko Tipsarevic or Viktor Troicki, it will be an accomplishment for the home side to keep this tie live past Saturday. It doesn't appear that Djokovic will reconsider playing, but it would be tennis' version of an all-in re-raise at the World Series of Poker.

No, the interesting aspects about this sudden and unexpected development should occur later this year, now that Switzerland—assuming Federer plays future ties—is a bona fide title threat. They now boast two of the top eight singles players in the world, who, by the way, were Olympic gold medalists in doubles back in 2008. Switzerland's second-round (quarterfinal) opponent would be either Belgium or Kazakhstan, either of whom would be just as heavy an underdog as Serbia is this weekend. There's almost no scenario in which I can see the Swiss not reaching at least the semifinal stage, and with the best-of-five-rubber format, Roger and Stan can even afford a misstep or two along the way. If you thought the Czech Republic's dynamic duo of Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek was impressive, Federer and Wawrinka could be even better.

I've always wondered why Federer, knowing the strong teammate he'd have in Wawrinka, didn't give the Davis Cup more of a serious go in years' past—or at least commit to the competition earlier this year. Why do you think he decided to this time? Is it because of Stan's surge? The favorable draw? A renewed outlook on his game with racquet and coaching changes? Or a combination of everything?

Or…could it be because wants to put some distance between himself and Rafael Nadal in the GOAT debate—which I could see a Davis Cup title doing. Rafa has won it multiple times, and Roger's scant history in the event is often held against him.

*****

Ed,

Roger's return should generate buzz for the entire Davis Cup season—if he's all in. I hope he does commit to the full season, though it seems more likely it will be a tie-by-tie decision. As for this one, with Tipsarevic and Troicki already unavailable and Novak on the ski slopes, Serbia's hopes seem to be sliding downhill even before a ball is struck.

Federer seems genuinely excited by both Stan's surge and enthusiastic about his own direction, so I think it's a combination of factors. Fed said in Melbourne that he's feeling healthy, coming off a positive start to the season, and working with Edberg (and the new stick) to sharpen that attacking edge to his game. And seeing Stan take down the world's top two may well infuse him with the feeling that anything is possible—including winning the Davis Cup.

Part of Federer’s reluctance to commit to a full Davis Cup campaign in the past was both his own success—when you're winning that often for that long, there isn't a lot of time to squeeze it into the season (players sometimes say recovering from a weekend of Davis Cup takes a full week)—the burden of national expectation (remember the total look of deflation after the Fribourg flame-out to the USA two years ago?), and the unpredictability of that wacky Davis Cup draw that can take you from slow South American clay in February to lightning-quick carpet months later. This year’s draw must appeal, and the fact that he's coming off a hard-court event and going to play on a hard court doesn't demand dramatic adjustment. Stan’s ascendancy may make Federer feel like Switzerland is a true title contender now, and the pursuit of the country's first Davis Cup may be alluring.

How about the other opening-rounders? I think that Italy vs. Argentina, traditionally such a strong home team, may be one to watch, as the baby blues have qualified for the quarterfinals every year since 2002, but without Juan Martin del Potro they are vulnerable. Japan vs. Canada could be interesting—although it was just announced that Milos Raonic pulled out—and of course it will be cool to see the U.S. and Great Britain exhibit warning-track power in the outfield of the San Diego Padres’ ballpark. Interesting since those two nations contested the first Davis Cup tie ever at Longwood Cricket Club back in 1900.

*****

Richard,

I see I couldn’t get you to bite on Federer’s personal ambitions within this team event. I never thought his lack of Davis Cup success should be used as ammo by Nadal supporters, but when you’re splitting hairs, everything must be taken into account, I suppose.

There’s only one opening-round match I’m going to see, and that’s the United States vs. Great Britain, so I’ll focus on that potentially tasty tie. It’s in a baseball stadium, as you mentioned, and after the hockey games played in Yankee Stadium this week, you have to wonder what sport they’ll shoehorn into a ballpark next. Here’s an idea: Golf, a game that has never had a true arena setting. Create a few Par 3s and hold it at night, under the lights. If that sounds crazy, remember that I’m still thawing out from Sunday’s bone-chilling Rangers vs. Devils game in the Bronx.

Back to the sport that gave this website its name: Great Britain’s task feels much like what Serbia had to deal with in last year’s final. Namely, Andy Murray will somehow have to scrounge together two-and-a-half points, with Colin Fleming filling in the final half-point in doubles. It’s not inconceivable: Fleming is ranked No. 33 in doubles, Murray is a great player in any format, and the Bryan brothers have been beatable lately—the top-ranked team didn’t win the U.S. Open, ATP World Tour Finals, or the Australian Open. Of course, they are still the world No. 1s and winners of four of the past five major tournaments. So Murray and Fleming will be up against it in a rubber that seems like the swing match.

But there are a lot of unknowns in this tie, and questions about many of the competitors. John Isner says he isn’t 100 percent, Murray is still just a few weeks back from an extended absence, and it’s almost impossible to figure out what you’re going to get from Sam Querrey, his third-round run at the Aussie Open notwithstanding. And this tie will be held on clay—hardly a preferred surface for either the Americans or Brits—in an unorthodox environment. My guess is that the matches hold to form and the U.S. wins 3-2 in a live fifth rubber, or Great Britain somehow wins the doubles, or even a non-Murray singles match, to score the upset.

There’s no crying in baseball, but as we’ve seen, there’s plenty in tennis, and a first-round home loss would really hurt the host U.S. side. How do you think it will play out, and do you see any changes to the U.S. Davis Cup team coming in the next year or two? John, Sam, and the Bryans are a strong outfit, but I sense that their time together is nearing an end, because of age, injury, and performance.

*****

Ed,

The reason I'm reluctant to make any sweeping statement about Federer's Davis Cup future is because I'm not sure he even knows the answer yet. Remember when he said his goal for 2014 was to "win five titles"? I wonder if he'll amend that and add Davis Cup to his to-do list if he’s asked about it over the weekend.

I remember watching a 19-year-old Federer breaking into tears after singlehandedly sweeping the USA, 3-2, in the 2001 first round in Basel and thinking, “it's a matter of time before this guy wins Davis Cup and a lot of majors.” His passion for the competition seemed so strong at the time, and he was also playing doubles frequently. I understand why some Fed fans want to see him make a run at the Cup—I do, too—but for me whether he and Stan can pull off a Berdych-Stepanek and win it or not won't detract from his legacy, because it's still a team event (Vilas and Clerc never won it together). And also, because the ITF sabotages consistent player participation by sticking with a format as antiquated as a 14 oz. wood racquet.

I think you're spot on about the uncertainty of the USA vs. Great Britain tie. There are so many variables, from Murray trying to find his form coming back from surgery—and probably needing to play three matches for Britain to win—to Isner's health following his injury in Australia, to rumors that Captain Courier is burrowing through Ron Burgundy's closet in search of the suit he'll wear, to exactly which Sam Querrey will show up. The Q-Ball who can go mentally askew in big moments, but he has confidently won three of his last four Davis Cup matches, including the clincher against Brazil last February in Jacksonville. Also, since it's Super Bowl weekend, will fans other than the Net Heads turn up in full force?

The red-clay court itself may be a fickle factor, as Murray said the court is pretty slippery and predicted that "the first match during the day will probably be playing faster, much faster than the second match." You can argue that should help the big-serving Americans, but then if footing is a real issue, Murray is one of the best movers and improvisors in the game who trained on clay in his younger years. So we'll have to see how the surface plays a role in the plot.

As far as the American Davis Cup future, I don't think we're on the verge of seeing Donald Young and Jack Sock assume starting singles spots yet (though DY is a practice partner this week, I think). I think the Bryan brothers are the battery that will continue to charge the team whether they're on the court, baseball field, or miniature golf course. Those guys lobbied for so long to get on the squad and bring such passion to it, we'll probably see them as co-captains within the next 20 years. Prediction? Tough call. We may see extra innings, and I will go with USA 3, Great Britain 2.


Editor's Note: We actually are on the verge of seeing Young assuming a starting singles spot, as he was named to the team in place of Isner due to injury.

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