Davis Cup final: Roger Federer seizes victory ‘for the boys’
Roger Federer beats Richard Gasquet to seal Switzerland's first Davis Cup win, then dedicates the victory to his team-mates
Just one week ago, Swiss hopes of fulfilling a longed-for first—the Davis Cup title—must have taken a big hit when their leading man Roger Federer pulled out of the final of the ATP World Tour Finals with less than an hour to spare.
The back injury he had picked up in his late-night semi-final against, in an unfortunate twist of fate, fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka, looked set to end a resurgent 2014 without any of the three big titles that had looked within his grasp in the closing stages of the season.
Already he had seen Novak Djokovic claim the year-end No1, then the Swiss had been forced to concede the end-of-year Championship tilt, and it looked as though chances of claiming the only trophy missing from his resume were also dashed.
Federer took to court for his first singles against the outstanding Gael Monfils with barely two hours of practice time to test the back and adjust from hard to clay. And it showed. Federer looked rusty, tight, far from the explosive player who had won more matches this year than anyone else. Monfils levelled the tie with a straight sets win after Wawrinka had given the Swiss an opening lead.
Come Saturday, Federer and Swiss captain Severin Luthi had to take a chance: would playing doubles with friend and Olympic gold partner Wawrinka aggravate the back or free it up and liberate the Federer tennis?
Without a doubt, it proved to be the latter: the Swiss duo played perhaps their best doubles tennis since winning that gold. Their win meant the Swiss had to take just one of the two remaining singles matches for an historic victory.
Federer was up first, but he did not face the expected opponent. Despite French captain Arnaud Clement’s assertion late yesterday that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga would be ready despite pulling out of the doubles rubber, it was Richard Gasquet who took on the Federer challenge.
And while the elegant, often thrilling, Gasquet had won just two matches in 14 against Federer, both those wins had come on clay, both in close, high-quality contests. Indeed Gasquet at his best, especially in his early days, was marked out as a new Federer in the making: the same flexible and varied single-handed backhand, touch and feel, variety and sparkle.
What was not good news for the Frenchman was that he had lost his last four matches to the Swiss without winning a set, without so much as reaching a tiebreak. And he had looked less than convincing in the doubles match.
If he could not rise to the occasion in front of his adoring home crowd—and he has always been one of France’s most popular players—the title was lost. But if he could pull out a win, the stage would be handed to Monfils—and he of all the players in Lille, can switch on a crowd, and jaw-dropping tennis, like no-one else. Wawrinka, even in the outstanding form he had brought to France, would find Monfils hard to contain.
Clement summed up the scale of the task: “Of course it’s going to be very, very difficult now… It’s a big challenge, big challenge for us, beating No2 and 4 in the world in the final of Davis Cup. But even if we have a little chance, we’re going to try.”
And it must have been tough for Gasquet, stepping into the limelight that he of all the French players probably relishes the least, but he took on the challenge with courage and some wonderful tennis. But what made this even more tough was the form that Federer brought to play, honed in the doubles and on full glittering show from the very first moment.
Gasquet lost a 40-0 lead in the face of a barrage of winners, and faced breakpoint after a touch volley winner from Federer. The Swiss slotted a winner down the line to break and took a lead that he would not lose in the match.
After a couple of errors on serve in the fourth game, he made three love holds, and twice almost broke again along the way, too. But a gritty Gasquet fought off the challenge with his own bustling, attacking brand of tennis to survive break points in the seventh and ninth games. To no avail: He trailed by a set, 6-4.
Federer had dropped only four points on serve in a highly competitive set, and carried on at the start of the second set. His first point was a glorious backhand drop-shot winner, preluding a quick break and two more love holds of his own serve.
Not that Federer was without a problem, it appeared. His service preparation and receiving position looked more limited than usual, suggesting that his back was beginning to play up. But that seemed merely to galvanise his tennis into more first-strike tactics. He broke Gasquet again, helped by two blistering return-of-serve winners, and then served out the set with the deftest angled backhand touch winner, 6-2.
Still Federer had lost only seven points on serve, and he backed off not an inch. But Gasquet showed great resolve and some spirited tennis to fend off four break points at the start of the third set. But come the fifth game, come the relentless pressure from the Swiss and a break. It began to look a hopeless cause for the French, countered at every turn by one of the most intense performances from Federer this year.
The Swiss broke again to lead 5-2, and with the clock at still under two hours, Federer took to his line to serve against perhaps the loudest soundtrack he has ever faced. But a minute later, he finished in a style befitting the moment, with a backhand drop-shot winner, 6-2, his 62nd winner of the match.
In scenes reminiscent of Federer’s emotional and long-sought French Open title in 2009, he fell to his knees and then fell prostrate, face down, on the clay. For this was an special victory, perhaps one that he and close team-mate Wawrinka wondered whether they could ever take.
The team’s quietly-spoken but astute coach, Luthi, admitted that he needed to say nothing on this occasion, simply let Federer do what he does best:
“I don’t know how he does it. Sometimes it’s just best to sit next to him and not say anything, because he is amazing.”
But Federer, as he has said throughout a campaign that just a short while ago looked destined for failure, was more happy for the team than himself.
“Stan has put in so much effort over the years and he played an unbelievable weekend: I’m very aware of that. This one is for the boys.”
Challenged about what it meant to him completing as it does the full set of tennis silverware, he countered again: “Not for me: It’s for them. I’ve won enough in my career that I don’t need this for ticking all the boxes.”
But while Wawrinka was the stand-out performer on the first two days, few would deny that Federer brought this year, for himself and for Swiss tennis, to a crowning conclusion in playing and winning the last match in such style to seal the Davis Cup for the first time in almost 80 years of Swiss trying.
And it’s hard to imagine that he and Wawrinka won’t now be eyeing more Olympic glory come Rio in 2016.