Captain Courageous

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Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka won the doubles point, giving Switzerland two chances to win the Davis Cup on Sunday. (AP Photos)

Credit Swiss Davis Cup Severin Luthi with making a great decision sometime Friday night or this morning. After consulting with his players, Luthi decided to yank the scheduled doubles team Marco Chiudinelli and Michael Lammer in favor of Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka. The net result: A decisive, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 win for Switzerland—and a 2-1 points lead in the best-of-five-point Davis Cup final.

Chiudinelli and Lammer are low-ranked journeymen in both singles and doubles. With the tie knotted at 1-all, Luthi could not afford to stand by and watch a ritual slaughter, inflicted by 2014 French Open doubles champion Julien Benneteau and the mercurial Richard Gasquet.

In addition to that obvious danger, there was another potent one in play. Imagine the momentum and confidence the French squad, and the bulk of the 27,000+ fans who have been jamming into the Stade Pierre Mauroy, would carry into the final day of play. Luthi clearly had to call upon Wawrinka and Federer, sore back and all—which is why that obvious move isn’t the great decision I’m referring to.

Luthi’s stroke of genius was his bold decision to hire U.S. doubles coach David Macpherson to give coaching advice to the Swiss doubles players. Clearly, Luthi was thinking ahead to all the possible scenarios for this three-day tie last week in London when he brought Macpherson on board. For no matter how you crunched the scenarios, there was only one in which the doubles would not loom as a critical point for Switzerland: If the Swiss led 2-0 at the end of day one. And even then, wouldn’t it be wise in that situation to go for the jugular?

Bringing in Macpherson was also a selfless move by a coach who set aside whatever ego he has in the interest of doing the best thing for his team. I wouldn’t nominate him for sainthood on that count; this is the kind of thing any captain worth the title is supposed to do. What I do nominate him for is a MacArthur Genius Grant, because, well, how often have you heard of a captain bringing in the coach of a rival team? Macpherson’s day job is that of coach to the best doubles team of all time, U.S. Davis Cup stalwarts Bob and Mike Bryan.

But save some credit to the Swiss players, too. It would have been very easy for a player of Federer’s status to pooh-pooh as alarmist, or even redundant, the idea of bringing in a private doubles coach. Not only is Federer the all-time singles Grand Slam champion, but he and Wawrinka were also the gold-medal winning doubles squad at the 2008 Olympics.

“Coach?” Federer might have exclaimed. “We don’t need no stinkin’ doubles coach!”

Apparently, Macpherson and the doubles players (presumably all four men on the Swiss side) got together and held strategy sessions. They also watched video tape. I admit it was hard, watching the match today, to see exactly what Macpherson brought to the table. What was obvious, though, is that the Swiss were highly synchronized—insert favorite quip about Swiss timekeeping devices here—and brutally efficient, far more than one might have expected from a team that last played together in April against Kazakhstan.

Luthi must have had sharp and painful memories of that tie. Switzerland, also deadlocked after Day 1 in that tie, lost the doubles point to the obscure tandem of Andrey Golubev and Aleksandr Nedovyesov. The Swiss singles players managed to step up and secure the tie by winning the final two singles matches, but the experience must have convinced Luthi that, in a game chock full of experienced doubles players and specialists, having won a gold medal six years ago means little.

Today, it was the French who looked out of sync. Benneteau might be a doubles Grand Slam champion (he partnered with Edouard Roger-Vasselin in winning Roland Garros), but he hadn’t played a match with Gasquet all year. Furthermore, Gasquet was clearly the weak link on the French team. He’s played poorly all fall, and before that he was dealing with injury. Gasquet has played some doubles this year, almost exclusively with French No. 1 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. In fact, the pair logged a critical doubles win in the World Group semifinals over the defending champion Czech Republic’s savvy, veteran team of Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek.

That raises the obvious question: what was French captain Arnaud Clement thinking? If he held Tsonga out of the doubles because he didn’t consider the point critical, he probably made a huge mistake. His most sensible argument is that he wanted to keep Tsonga fresh for his now do-or-die fourth rubber with Federer. We won’t be judge the wisdom of that decision until Sunday afternoon, but there’s also something to be said in a situation like this for playing the best guy or team you have and worry about the rest later—the way the Luthi did.

What we do know for sure is that the Swiss played terrific doubles today. Over the course of the match, Federer and Wawrinka broke down the physical and mental defenses of the French. Gasquet looked increasingly unsure of himself as the match went on. The Swiss exploited him to the max, even though it was Benneteau who offered up the key breaks in the first and third sets.

"We came on court to win this point,” Wawrinka declared afterward. “We played aggressive, we knew what we had to do. We did a good job. I'm content with this win.”

In the big picture, the Swiss really had two objectives in this doubles: To win, and perhaps equally important, to win quickly. A knock-down, drag-out five setter—even in the faster-paced doubles—surely would have left the Swiss stars somewhat leg-weary for Sunday, and we won’t even get into how it might have affected Federer’s back. But Federer and Wawrinka held their feet the necks of the French; the match was over in just two hours and 12 minutes.

"The coaches did a wonderful job of preparing us for this match,” Federer said. “Now the objective is to rest and recover after winning this point today."

That, and perhaps buying a beer for Luthi—and Macpherson.

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