Genius Got in the Way

Tuesday, April 08, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

It remains not just the largest hole in his resume, but the only one—unless you believe that Roger Federer absolutely, positively must win the ATP 250 in Kuala Lumpur in order to be taken seriously as one of the greatest players ever to swing a racquet.

I refer to the Davis Cup, of course, which Federer and his cohorts remain on track to bag for 2014, barring the kind of disaster that almost befell the Swiss team this past weekend.

It’s interesting, this debate about Federer and the world’s foremost international team competition. His partisans leap to his defense when some suggest that the 17-time Grand Slam singles champion hasn’t shown sufficient commitment to the cause. His apologists point out—and rightly so—that Federer has played a whopping 62 Davis Cup matches in 24 ties over the course of 14 years. That’s just 10 fewer matches than one of the most enthusiastic and reliable of all Davis Cup performers, Lleyton Hewitt.

Of course, Hewitt has been the anchor of two teams that won the competition, which is where Federer’s problem, if that’s the right word, lies. Too many of his matches were pro forma exercises meant to keep the wolves of criticism from his door. Once Federer became a Grand Slam champion, his interest in Davis Cup faded dramatically. It was understandable, but by no means inevitable. Other great champions remained loyal to the competition, come Helfant or high water.

Ironically, Federer’s one-foot-in, one-foot-out attitude toward Davis Cup works against him, because critics might be more inclined to give him a pass had he played much less frequently. At the start of his career, Federer was gung-ho: In the spring of 1999, the 17-year-old rocked the Davis Cup establishment when, playing No. 2  behind Olympic singles gold medalist Marc Rosset, he upset world No. 48 Davide Sanguinetti to help Switzerland make the quarterfinals. 

Federer had 27 Davis Cup matches under his belt before he won his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon in 2003. Recalling those happy, early days, he recently said at Indian Wells: "There was once a love affair between the Davis Cup and me. At the beginning of my career, it was the most important thing, and my debut is one of my happiest memories."

Then Federer’s genius got in the way. In 2003, the loosey-goosey, conspicuously gifted good-time Charlie was transformed, seemingly overnight, into a tennis titan. And there went his interest in Davis Cup. His only tenable rationalization: Switzerland had few players capable of helping Federer win the championship.

Just months after Federer won his first major, at age 22, he led the Swiss into Melbourne Park to meet Australia in the semifinals. The Aussies were a powerhouse, but back in those days the Swiss were no one-man band either. The home squad was led by Hewitt and Mark “Scud” Philippoussis. The Swiss had the newly crowned Wimbledon champ along with the veteran Rosset.

Federer won his first singles match against Philippoussis to knot the tie at a match apiece, but he and Rosset lost the doubles in five grueling sets, which took a toll the following day. In a critical fourth-rubber clash with Hewitt, Federer served for the match in the fourth set, but his game collapsed. He ran out of gas in the fifth, losing the set 6-1. And Hewitt went on to add a second Davis Cup championship to his resume.

It was, in some ways, a typical Davis Cup moment—an agonizing, oh-so-close, crushing defeat for the visiting team, and a soaring, euphoria-inducing triumph for home side. Was I the only one who wondered if memories of that painful loss flashed through Federer’s mind at some point this past weekend?

Federer knows as well as anyone that anything can happen in Davis Cup, a competition that seems designed to make heroes of unlikely candidates. Now that Federer is the No. 2 man on the Swiss depth chart (behind world No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka), perhaps he sees himself as one of those candidates.

Eleven years after that dispiriting loss in Melbourne, the Swiss are back in the semifinals for just the second time in the Federer era. Serbia, sans Novak Djokovic, lost in the first round of World Group play. Spain, which has created a Davis Cup dynasty in this new millenium, was also knocked out early—largely because Rafael Nadal chose to skip the competition this year. But as last weekend showed, the Swiss are no sure bet to win. In Davis Cup, almost no team ever is.

The Swiss will meet Italy in the semifinals in mid-September. Much to their good fortune, it will be another home tie for Federer and company. A great deal can happen between now and then, and there’s no doubt that Wawrinka will go into that tie fully cognizant of how much stronger he needs to be, mentally and emotionally, than he was last weekend.

At the same time, Fabio Fognini emerged as a Davis Cup hero last weekend thanks to a convincing straight-sets win over Great Britain’s defending Wimbledon champ, Andy Murray. The Italian was a strong candidate for Most Valuable Player of the World Group quarterfinals, because he played three matches—his loss in doubles (alongside Simone Bolelli) overshadowed by two singles wins, including the fourth rubber over Murray to keep the tie alive.

Fognini is the kind of emotional, artistic player who can bug the living you-know-what out of opponents with his drama-queen antics. He may not get into Federer’s head, but I don’t feel as sure when it comes to Wawrinka. The Swiss are lucky to be hosts, with choice of ground and surface.

In a potential final, though, the Swiss will be visiting either the Czech Republic or France. On paper, the Czechs would be the easier assignment, as their current No. 2 (behind world No. 5 Tomas Berdych) is No. 40 Radek Stepanek. He’s a terrific Davis Cup performer, but he's also injury-prone and 35 years old as I write this. Lukas Rosol is just a few ticks of the computer behind Stepanek, and we’ve all seen what he can do when he’s inspired.

But will the Czechs get by the well-balanced if fundamentally unreliable French team? If they don’t, the Swiss will be playing against a team led (probably) by two of the most mercurial players on the tour, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—with a slew of excellent singles and doubles players in the wings.

You might think that having the third- and fourth-ranked players in the world—not to mention the all-time Grand Slam singles champ—would guarantee a Davis Cup triumph, but Federer knows as well as anyone that he still has a long time to go. But at least this time genius will not get in the way.


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