Davis Cup final: Roger Federer the picture of optimism, with just a hint of caution

'I’m just really pleased that I’m actually able to play tomorrow. I’ll give it a go,' says Roger Federer

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis

No doubt everyone in Switzerland, everyone in Lille, everyone enthused by the visceral sporting combat that is a Davis Cup final played out in an arena of 27,000 fans allowed themselves a sigh of relief when Roger Federer joined his team-mates on the stage of the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie Grand Lille earlier today.

From the moment Federer withdrew from the ATP World Tour Finals climax against Novak Djokovic in London on Sunday, a question-mark had hovered over his head: Would the recurrent back problem that affected various stages of his 2013 season be healed enough to play?

Never has Switzerland won the prestigious team trophy, leaving a rare gap in Federer’s resume, and 2014 presented no better opportunity to remedy that. Federer himself was in resurgent form; Swiss No2 Stan Wawrinka, too, had matured to his best to win a first Grand Slam in Australia and a first Masters in Monte Carlo, and risen to a career-high No3 at the start of the year, now No4.

With Rafael Nadal’s Spain and Djokovic’s Serbia out of the competition, this was surely Federer’s time… except for an untimely spasm at the end of a punishing semi-final at the O2 on Saturday night—against, of all people, Wawrinka.

Both men travelled to Lille on Monday, but Federer did not practise until yesterday, wrapped up in several layers against the chill of the vast Stade Pierre Mauroy. It was clearly a gentle test of his back, so when he returned for early practice this morning, the glimmer of hope was fanned just a little. And when he took his place with fellow Swiss for the draw, and confirmed he would play his opening match against Gael Monfils, Twitter went into overdrive.

Naturally, though, he was quizzed about just how well he felt, and he was upbeat: “We’ll see tomorrow. Only the match gives you all the answers really. Today in practice, it wasn’t the goal to go to 100 per cent. I never do in practice the day before a potential match. So I’m just really pleased that I’m actually able to play tomorrow. I’ll give it a go.”

But in response to Monfils’ assertion that “if Roger decided to play, it’s because he feels he’s able to win the match, to beat me,” Federer was cautious, revealing how close a call the Swiss decision had been.

“Yesterday we had a long conversation after the practice. Clearly that gave me some first information how I was feeling. Then this morning the idea was to practise early before the draw so we have the best options, I guess, to select the players, so Severin can select the players. Am I going to play on Friday or not, that was the whole idea.

“We thought if I continue with my progress today, then there is a chance that I should give it a go tomorrow, which is what happened. Otherwise, we would have come up with an alternative game plan this morning. But things were very good out there this morning. I was very happy how I felt. From that standpoint, I’m actually very relieved.”

He was also cagey about how invasive his treatment has been these last few days. On cortisone injections: “If I did, I would never tell you, but thanks for asking (smiling).”

Monfils, though, had a point. Federer has never retired mid-match in more than 1,200 starts, though there were occasions, such as Shanghai 2008, when he played with obvious back pain. And he has pulled out mid-way through a tournament only three times in his 15 years on the main tour, the last occasion being the London final four days ago.

And he explained that familiarity with the injury does not breed contempt but respect and understanding.

“I’ve had back pain many times in my life, in my career, not just in the last few years, but also back in almost junior days. From that standpoint, yeah, I can definitely draw from some experience.

“I know what’s possible, what’s not. I know how much I need to push, how much I can push. I think that’s what’s going to be interesting to see tomorrow.

“Obviously if I’m stepping out on the court, that means I can play. That’s most important. It’s a difficult match regardless, for anybody, for me as well. If I would be 100 per cent, it would be tough in itself because of the crowd, because of the opponent. It is like at the first round at a tournament, nobody quite knows what’s going on yet. Indoor clay is something we don’t quite know. There’s a lot of question marks for everybody, including myself.”

Federer, then, has remained careful to contain expectations, and considering the pressure that both Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have put him under in big matches this year—the former had match points in a five-set quarter-final meeting at the US Open, the latter beat him in the final at the Toronto Masters—that is not surprising, weak back or not.

Perhaps it is also why he has been reluctant to admit that he sees this weekend’s final as a vital and crowning achievement—a precaution that may alleviate some of the pressure-cooker atmosphere.

“Had a great year with some really interesting ties. Obviously arriving late in Serbia after Stan’s epic win in Australia. Two pressure home ties in front of 16,000, 18,000 people, quarters and semis. Now here we’re in front of an unbelievable crowd in France in a country that really cares dearly about it. So clearly it’s a cool year for all of us who spent a lot of good times together. Yeah, of course, it would be very special to win here.

“But ‘once in a lifetime,’ I don’t know. There’s so much more than tennis in life, but clearly it’s a big deal, no doubt about it.”

It’s a big deal for him, for team-mates and for fans, but just as big a deal for a home side that will boast the biggest audience ever gathered for a Davis Cup.

And it’s some team: Monfils, Tsonga and Richard Gasquet are all former top-seven players, Julien Benneteau is at a career-high ranking, and all four are currently the right side of No26 in the world.

And the eldest of the four—Benneteau will join Federer at 33 next month—summed up what is driving Les Bleus: “We are an historic country of Davis Cup. We won like nine times. For us it’s a wonderful opportunity to have this crowd in front of 27,000 people against the best player of all time. For us it means a lot. Four years ago we were close: we lost this final. But for this weekend, I think we are all more than 100 per cent to be ready to go on the court and to bring back this trophy.”

Let battle commence.

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