Loving Cup

by: Steve Tignor | November 24, 2014

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Switzerland's first Davis Cup title wasn't about a legacy; it was about a friendship. (AP Photos)

Roger Federer’s soaringly emphatic victory over Richard Gasquet in France on Sunday couldn’t have been more fitting. With it, Federer clinched the first Davis Cup in Switzerland’s history, and won the only remaining major tennis title that had eluded him in his 16-year career. In the process, he punctuated a season of resurgence with some of his finest tennis of the last 12 months, and succeeded in doing the one thing he had failed to do during that time: Win the big one. For Federer and his teammates, the last match of 2014 came with many levels of closure.

"Teammates," Federer soon made clear, was the operative word in that last sentence. When he picked himself off the clay after the last point and dried his tears, he didn't say anything about what the victory meant to him personally. 

“I’m happy I was able to stay calm and play a good match," he told a TV interviewer on court. "Stan [Wawrinka] has put in so much effort over the years and played an unbelievable weekend that gave me the opportunity today. I’m very much aware of that. This one is for the boys.”

Federer was aware that while the columns and headlines will hash out what the win means for his legacy, this Swiss team wasn’t really about him. From 2004 to the start of 2014, Federer played just one World Group main-draw tie with them. He showed up long enough to keep Switzerland from dropping out of the Cup’s top tier, but it was left to the others, led by Wawrinka, to try to do more. Federer has a much better record than Wawrinka in the competition—coming into this tie, Federer was 49-17, while Stan was just 25-25. But it was Wawrinka who was there to play, and lose, a seven-hour doubles match to the Czechs last year in Geneva. He was there to play, and win, a fifth rubber over Lleyton Hewitt in Australia in 2011. He was there, in Astana in 2010, to suffer a 5-0 humiliation to Kazahkstan.

He was also, at times, fed up with not having Fed at his side.

“Roger has been saying for years that he wants to play the Davis Cup and it’s important,” Wawrinka said when Federer declined to play for Switzerland in 2013, “but apparently that’s not the case...Davis Cup is not a priority for him at the moment.”

It was Wawrinka, in short, who was there to play for the Swiss when the odds were against them. Federer rejoined the team in 2014, when the odds were suddenly in their favor. This February, he made a surprise, virtually unannounced appearance to play his second opening-round tie in nine years, against the Serbs. By the time he had flown to Belgrade, it was too late for Novak Djokovic, who had skipped the tie, to do anything about it. The Swiss left the Serbs in the dust, then took advantage of a favorable draw that kept them at home against Kazakhstan and Italy in the quarters and semis. 

Federer led the way in those ties, going 5-0 in singles and propping up an erratic Wawrinka. This weekend in Lille, though, each man needed the other, and the victory was a team effort from start to finish. The two players, who had confronted each other in a locker room last weekend in London, complemented each other’s styles perfectly in Lille. 

It was Federer who ended the weekend, like a thoroughbred, with an elegant kick down the homestretch—his final swing against Gasquet produced a suitably memorable winning drop shot. But it was Wawrinka who had begun the weekend, like a boxer, with a quick, stunning punch to France’s collective nose. He set the tone for the tie at the start of his opening match, when he sprinted to the baseline and slid toward the one of the ball kids to pick up the balls. After that bit of fanfare, Wawrinka really set the tone by playing his best tennis in six months and hammering—there’s no other word for it—Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in four sets. Stan, who hit 61 winners against just 29 errors, had come to Lille with something to prove.

“I thought I was the stronger player on the court,” a brazen Wawrinka said after beating Tsonga. “I’m not No. 4 for nothing.”

Stan was just as brazen in the doubles the next day; his attitude and aggression caught on and helped lift a stiff and ailing Federer, who had lost to Gael Monfils in his first singles match.

“I think we are both playing [good] tennis,” Wawrinka said after their straight-set win over Gasquet and Julien Benneteau. “So it was important to be aggressive on the court and to show that we’re going to take the lead and we’re going to take the doubles.” 

“I think Stan [executed] unbelievably well today,” said Federer, who played with renewed freedom and purpose in doubles. “I tried to keep up. Severin kept us motivated and going. It was a cool last sort of 24 hours, I must say.”

“Severin,” in case you haven't heard, is the eternally under-the-radar Severin Luthi. He has served as Switzerland’s captain since 2005, and he has received almost as little notice as Federer’s less-glamorous co-coach since 2007. Like Wawrinka, Luthi had traveled a long road to this moment, and his joy at courtside in Lille was one of Sunday’s highlights. Luthi had also shown his value in this tie by recruiting the Bryan brothers’ adviser, David Macpherson, to work on set plays and patterns with Federer and Wawrinka, who had lost their last Davis Cup match together in April. Let’s also not forget that Luthi began the week with the unenviable job of bringing the two together after their dust-up at the O2.

Federer, Luthi, and Wawrinka celebrated the way all Davis Cup teams do—by having a few before the post-match press conference. Federer was obviously pleased that the ambush in Serbia in February had led to victory in France in November. Would his legacy, or “résumé,” have suffered if he had never helped his country to this moment? Not being part of a winning team wouldn’t have cost him any spots on the list of all-time greats; but it would have been a fact that, of the men with eight Grand Slam titles or more, only Federer and Jimmy Connors would have failed to put their names on the Cup.

Federer’s name is on it now, yet he still retains a streak of ambivalence when it comes to the competition. Before the final, he told USA Today that, “Davis Cup isn’t what it used to be.” As a teenager, he rebelled against the discipline of Swiss captain Jakob Hlasek. And when he ascended to No. 1 in 2004, he made individual goals his priority. Even when he finally had the Cup in his hands yesterday, Federer downplayed its significance for him.

“This is for them, for the team,” he said. “I’ve won enough in my career that I don’t need to complete my...everything, ticking off the box.”

Some will hear these words as generous, others as patronizing. But they also seemed aimed, at least in part, toward Wawrinka and their recently frayed and sometimes complicated friendship. That relationship was at the core of this tie, and the Swiss team's season. In 2014, Federer changed his priorities and helped his friend win a prize that he had long dedicated himself to winning. In the final, Wawrinka led the way from the first ball, and helped his friend find his best tennis again in that soaring win over Gasquet on Sunday. Davis Cup is unique in men’s tennis because it’s a team game; but it’s also unique among team sports because it can be won by just two men. It can be won by two men playing for their country, and for each other.

When it was over, and the Swiss had their Cup, and the boys had loosened up in the interview room, the weekend’s leader showed his appreciation for his friend’s help.

“I still love you, Roger,” Stan said.

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