The Great Federer Con

Thursday, February 06, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

I have just one lingering question left now that Roger Federer had his Road to Damascus moment vis a vis the Davis Cup competition. Just when did it first occur to him that throwing his bandana into the ring for 2014 might be a good idea?

The answer really doesn’t matter much, but it sure would be fun to know. Novak Djokovic hadn’t been played this badly since Rafael Nadal reversed the tide in their rivalry in 2012.

Federer decided to join Switzerland’s national tennis team in Serbia just days after Stanislas Wawrinka became the second Swiss man to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era, and perhaps a week after Federer experienced another, potentially dispiriting loss to Nadal in the semifinals of a major.

This was a marked and utterly unexpected turnaround with compelling implications, given that Federer has long suffered from prudishness when it comes to this international competition. Since 2004, he has played in just two World Group ties. But Federer so enjoyed beating up on the depleted Serbian squad last week that he’s already declared that he’s eager to play in the upcoming quarterfinals in early April. Thus, the 17-time major champ will have played more Davis Cup World Group competition in the first four months of this year than in the past nine years combined.

Since Federer hit his stride as a singles champ, his Davis Cup role has been strictly limited to that of a Lone Ranger, riding in (albeit on his famous cow) to save the Swiss from the horrors of falling out of the elite, 16-nation World Group. That he was obliged to do that, time and again, showed how weak the Swiss as a group were. And in the eyes of many that justified Federer avoiding an unqualified commitment to the competition.

But in Wawrinka, the Lone Ranger now has his very own Tonto.

Yet what makes this story fun and interesting is that, in reality, it’s a little more complicated than that. For one thing, Wawrinka didn’t come yodeling out of the Alpine precincts to become an ATP star and win a Grand Slam overnight. The guy has been good—seriously good—for a long time. He was ranked as high as No. 9 way back in 2008, and has been more or less knocking around in the Top 20 ever since.

The truth is that Federer and Wawrinka, the doubles champions at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, have been a potential Davis Cup force since roughly that time. For better or worse, Federer was simply too focused on winning Slams to pencil in a potential four-week Davis Cup commitment. We all were so reconciled to it that his decision to play against Serbia threw everyone for a loop.

The burning question buried therein is bound to make Fedophiles just a wee bit uneasy. By committing to Davis Cup this year—it’s hard to imagine Federer helping Switzerland to win the quarterfinal with Kazakhstan and then washing his hands of the whole deal—he seems to be declaring that his priorities have shifted dramatically. Instead of, “I can’t play Davis Cup because it might hurt my chances to win Wimbledon,” it now may be more like, “I may not be able to win Wimbledon anymore, so why not?”

And there’s another incentive in play: Perhaps Federer is thinking, or subconsciously feeling, that he can’t or won’t do it alone anymore. He may never get over the finish line at a major event again, but with that Clydesdale Wawrinka in harness beside him, they could pull the Davis Cup all the way from Prague to Geneva.

You know, it isn’t the craziest idea in the world.

There are other good reasons why Davis Cup suddenly makes sense to Federer, starting with an ancillary one: He’s probably going to have more free time on his hands as the months and perhaps next few years roll by. A schedule that once looked jammed may now have holes. And when it comes to Federer’s legacy, does anyone really think that winning yet another title in Dubai, or even Shanghai or Cincinnati, is going to stand out as prominently on his CV as a Davis Cup?

But I still haven’t gotten to the question with which I began this post. I’d like to know when Federer changed his mind not just because it will tell us about his state of mind, but because of how it played out in the larger Davis Cup context. Clearly, Federer knew long before he declared himself in that Djokovic and Nadal had declared themselves out. It’s also not like he did so poorly in Australia that he signed up for Davis Cup on a whim because he wanted more match play. The money question is: Did Federer wait so long to join the Swiss team out of concern that doing so earlier might have spurred Djokovic or even Nadal to change their minds?

In the case of Nadal, I would say “no.” In the case of Djokovic, “maybe.” The last thing Federer needed was to take a whipping at the hands of Nadal, and then go to Novi Sad to get rocked by Djokovic in front of an intensely patriotic crowd.

You know what? Federer cooked up a great con. And more power to him on pulling it off. Nothing prevented Djokovic from responding in kind. This was a great bait-and-switch move, and it worked out in another way: Spain ended sending a C+ team to Germany, where it was swept—just like Serbia was at the hands of Federer and Wawrinka.

Presto. No Djokovic or Nadal in Davis Cup. Glory, anyone?

Switzerland has to be considered the co-favorite—with France—right now. As for future match-ups, the Swiss will host Kazakhstan, and with a win would play either Italy or Great Britain. Switzerland would go on the road for a semifinal against Great Britain, but host the Italians.

Given that Italy will host Great Britain, it’s hard to imagine Andy Murray and company pulling off another upset on clay. Switzerland’s largest potential obstacle would be a final-round meeting with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and friends, in France.

Not coincidentally, a Swiss drive to win the Davis Cup will generate plenty of media interest. It will put Federer right back in the spotlight, which is where most great players like to be, whether they admit it or not. Who knew Federer could have such a wicked sense of humor—or such a huge appetite for staying on top?

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