Davis Cup final: Federer and Wawrinka throw down Swiss gauntlet with doubles win

Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka beat French doubles duo Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet to give Switzerland a 2-1 lead

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis

If any confirmation was needed about the importance of the doubles rubber in this year’s Davis Cup final, it was there in black and white. Only twice since 1990 has a team come back from a 2-1 deficit to win the title.

So with the Swiss-French final poised at 1-1 after Friday’s singles—Stan Wawrinka beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils beating Roger Federer—the choice of team for Saturday’s rubber could prove decisive. And each team captain had vividly contrasting choices.

France’s Arnaud Clement had a wealth of riches in his squad: Not just outstanding singles players—all four men were ranked 26 or above—but doubles talent as well. Julien Benneteau, albeit with a partner not in the squad, was French Open doubles champion and semi-finalist at the World Tour Finals. What’s more, he had the psychological benefit of a winning head-to-head in singles over Wawrinka and some fine results against Federer.

And several times Richard Gasquet had played with Tsonga this season, with the duo scoring a tie-winning victory over the strong doubles team of Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek in the Davis Cup semi-finals, on indoor clay, in September.

Severin Luthi, however, with two top-four singles players in Wawrinka and Federer who had joined forces to win Olympic gold in 2008, had a still tougher decision. The two had played little together, even in reaching the Davis Cup final, and lost their one match in the quarter-finals against Kazakhstan. Indeed it was the lowly-ranked Marco Chiudinelli and Michael Lammer who won Switzerland’s only doubles this year, against Serbia.

And then there was Federer’s back. The top Swiss was far from his best in the opening singles having picked up a back injury last weekend that forced him to pull out of the title match against Novak Djokovic at the World Tour Finals. With almost no practice time to adjust from hard courts to clay, he nevertheless confirmed that he was feeling more free as his singles match went on and would play doubles if called upon to do so.

But it was a risk: would playing an extra best-of-five match aggravate the back or would it liberate Federer’s movement and speed up his transition to clay? And would that be enough to help him beat Tsonga in Sunday’s singles?

Who would want to be in Luthi’s shoes, with the whole of Switzerland hoping for a first ever Davis Cup trophy—and Clement watching those Swiss men practise just hours before the deadline?

In the event, he went for his top team, Federer and Wawrinka, while Clement, after considering Tsonga, stayed with Benneteau and Gasquet.

The noise, in this important day, was deafening: The French crowd at high volume, La Marseillaise in full voice, tears pricking several players’ eyes.

Both pairs started at full throttle, too, with just two points dropped on serve in the first five games. But in the blink of an eye, Wawrinka burst the match open with his signature down-the-line backhand, the one that had wrecked havoc over Tsonga the day before, and it was two break points against the French. The Swiss pummelled the ball at their opponents to convert, and would sail to the opening set, 6-3, in half an hour, via one flamboyant smash from Federer that would make or break his back.

It appeared to make it, as time and again he blanketed the net, smashing here, picking off angled volleys there, and serving better than he had since the start of the ATP World Tour Finals.

It was Wawrinka’s serve, in fact, that came under pressure in the second set—not helped by a sudden clutch of Federer volley errors—but they fought off break points in the fourth game and again in the eighth.

The French were playing aggressive and smart tennis but could not break back. Benneteau came up with some great serving to stave off break points for 5-4, but Gasquet could not do the same at 5-5 in the face of some stunning first-strike returns of serve, first by Wawrinka with a forehand down the line, then by Federer on the backhand. The Swiss served out the set, 7-5.

The break came sooner in the third, with the Swiss looking every inch the combo with an Olympic gold to their names. The confidence oozed from every play, and they began to afford themselves smiles amid the verbal exchanges between points. They powered back from 40-0 to deuce, creating two break points in the third game, but Gasquet—the quietest player on the court—rose to the challenge, and it would be Benneteau who lost his serve.

Then in an unfortunate twist in the story, the soon-to-be-33 Benneteau needed treatment to his back at 4-3 down, while the 33-year-old Federer’s back, in contrast, now seemed to pose no problem.

It was, though, Wawrinka who took the final plaudits: He held to love, and with Federer serving, he also made three backhand volley winners in the final match-winning game, 6-4.

The gamble had clearly paid off: the more Federer played, the better he got and the more uninhibited Wawrinka became. As ‘Stan the Man’ said afterwards:
“We were really aggressive, we knew what we had to do… It’s easy for us to play together. We know how to communicate with each other and I have confidence in my game.”

And it produced the kind of stats that doubles teams must dream of: 67 winners to eight unforced errors—with only 20 more forced errors and no double faults.

Federer was quick to give credit to Wawrinka, and the whole team—though no doubt they were soon thanking him too: “Stan has been unbelievably supportive—Seve, and the coaching staff, thanks to them for getting me back on the court today.”

But there is a way to go before the Swiss can lift the Davis Cup for the first time. Federer could seal the deal against Tsonga in the first reverse singles—if Tsonga is fit to play, and there were rumours around Lille that he may not be at 100 per cent. Or it could all come down to the stars of the first day, Wawrinka and Monfils in the last rubber.

One thing’s for sure: It will be a great spectacle.

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