Roger Federer broke Richard Gasquet’s service in the 7th game of the 2nd set with such grace and style that it would have been easy to miss the Swiss champion’s breathtaking power.
He made it look easy, which is always a sign that he is doing it the hard way.
Federer, as often happens, was getting so hot that he was playing in a zone different from the one Gasquet inhabits; as the cliché has it, he was raising his game to another level. Say it any way you want, Federer was obviously enjoying himself and he was also just a little angry, in that understated Swiss way he has, and he was showing it. There is British understatement, stiff upper lip, nothing-to-it-old-boy. There is that cold German style, murder on autopilot, no emotion. The Swiss are phlegmatic when they go on full-throttle-no-more-fooling-around, but you can see their facial muscles tightening. Federer nods almost imperceptively. His brow furrows, his eyes narrow.
Mainly, he hits where Gasquet ain’t. Down the line return winners, power volleys, soft-hand put-aways: Federer has a shot for every occasion to win a point, and almost all the occasions are opportunities he creates by setting up his opponent to give him what he needs to close. He takes the set with a service game that seems effortless, holding at 15, and it is two sets up for Switzerland.
The large crowd, between 27 and 28 thousand packed into Lille’s Pierre Mauroy stadium, equipped with the clay surface the French team, as host country, chose, had got on Federer’s nerves. Maybe so had Gasquet’s lobs: might he be working on Federer’s back, which had given way in the singles on Friday, when he was badly beaten by Gael Monfils? Federer never flinched, arching and slamming with the precision of an acrobat, a ballet dancer, every time.
Federer, behind his courteous manner and Swiss reticence, is a man on fire. The Davis Cup is the one trophy missing from his résumé. He gives no quarter. He never does, anyway, but here he is utterly ruthless. He avenges the three sets lost to Monfils with the same score against Gasquet.
The Davis Cup was founded by a Harvard man named Dwight Davis in 1900. It is the period that gave us the Olympic Games, the World Series, and, a little earlier, collegiate football. Men were men, as they still are, but they played for honor and country not money (as they still do in the Davis Cup); Davis paid for the original cup himself. The Cup was eagerly sought by the tennis powers of the day, and it remained in their fairly tight circle until the Open era, when other countries, such as Czech Republic and Spain, got to hold the Cup after nearly a century of scarcely disputed mastery by the U.S., Great Britain, France, and Australia. Davis was civic minded, patriotic. He encouraged the building of municipal sports facilities — the very kind that the young Don Budge learned to play tennis on — and he was a Coolidge and Hoover man, serving the first as Secretary of War and the second as Governor of the Philippines.
In Davis Cup play, there is the crowd’s patriotic support, but there is also the pressure that comes from playing for team and country. The Davis Cup is not the only team version of tennis competition — there is also the Fed Cup (women) and World Team Tennis (men and women) — but it is the old, traditional one, and it tends to bring out passions bordering on the vulgar, when not the sinister. The Nazis spooked the great Gottfried von Cramm in the 1937 interzonals (the equivalent of semis) with a “win or else” phone call from the Führer, and Don Budge beat him in one of the greatest come-from-behind matches in the history of sports. It was the beginning of the nightmare for the German champ, though fortunately he survived, and survived even the Russian front, and contributed to the new Germany after the war.
The Lille crowd was, as these things go, not out of school. They were raucous, but they cheered good play on both sides. Lille has Flemish qualities, it is a cold, gray city, whose mayor, the late Pierre Mauroy, was one of France’s few true blue social-democrats, a good man though an economic illiterate. He would have approved the noise, but he would have extended the fraternal hand to the Swiss.
However, Gasquet is not much good against Federer. He makes some splendid points, but he cannot develop any traction. He holds his first two service games in the third set, but it does not look very serious. It is, of course: you never know when an explosive come-back can begin, like Budge’s against Von Cramm or like the one that got Federer past Gasquet’s compatriot and team-mate at the U.S. Open a few months ago, when the French Harlem Globetrotter wannabe was leading by two sets and by all appearance had him on the ropes, or in the net if you prefer. Gael Monfils beat Federer two days ago in the rubber’s first single, straight sets. Ya never know.
The Davis Cup format “reverses” the singles matches: the starting singles teams trade partners for their second ties. Normally, Federer should be meeting Jo Tsonga, who lost his first rubber to Stan Wawrinka. But Tsonga has a sore elbow and, under the rules, the French team can send in a sub, and they have chosen Gasquet. Gasquet is a fine player. He even has a style somewhat reminiscent of Federer — powerfully accurate serve that he uses for aces at key moments, a handsome one-handed backhand that he uses well, including for brilliant returns down the line, poise, footwork, a smart net game. You observe Gasquet and you see Federer without the genius, so he kind of helps you understand Federer, to the degree it is possible to understand a game such as his.
Gasquet looks like a man who knows he is in there to make a stand, un baroud d’honneur, the French say. In the 5th of the 3rd, Federer breaks again, saving the game point with a fantastic lengthy baseline rally followed by one of his patented net attacks for the ad, after which Gasquet practically throws the last point away with a shanked backhand. 3-2, Switzerland on serve, and Federer underscores his determination by following his serve to the net to take the first point, netting the second with a failed half-volley, then staying smooth for the next three points as if he were slicing a piece of cake. 4-2 Switzerland.
Switzerland has been playing with two men, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka. The French, so far, have fielded four. For months, they have been talking up their “depth” in anticipation of this final. They have won the Cup many times, though not as many times as we have, nor as many as the Australians. The French are terrific tennis players. They last won the Cup in 2001 (d. Australia), and their champions last won a major in the men’s singles game in 1983. They won their own doubles this year at Roland-Garros. They live in a country that smiles upon tennis in terms of climate, free time, well-organized clubs and training programs. We should not snigger, because we seem to be sliding into the same rut, a country where the sport is enjoyed by many, played at a very high level by quite a few, and yet — the big prizes elude us.
Gasquet, on serve, nets a forehand from the baseline. He tries a serve and volley and Federer makes him look like a beginner. He is not a quitter, rallies to 40-30 with some nice backhands, but Federer passes him with a brilliant backhand of his own when he again tries a net attack. He then takes the ad with a net approach of his own, as if to say, if you go to the net, kid… learn to do it right.
Give Gasquet credit, though, the man tries. He gets another ad on a nice play from the baseline and, of course, throws it away again. Federer gets the next one on a powerful return of serve that Gasquet shanks back. On the next point, they fall into a graceful, though tense, series of backhand crosscourt exchanges and then Gasquet, trying to change the pace, hits the wrong shot and it goes out of bounds by a few centimeters. Break — 5-2. Federer serves for the set, the match, and the Cup.
Fired up, he takes the first point with a mighty smash at the net, the perfect serve-and-volley. The second, Gasquet returns long. The third, Federer takes the return with a forehand winner that Gasquet can only look at. Triple match point! He hits a drop shot gently over the net — only the second or third he has attempted, and this one is perfect. Switzerland wins with a hold at love! First Swiss Cup in history! Won by Federer! It is like Derek Jeter winning his last game for the Yankees! Federer falls to the ground! He has tears in his eyes as his captain, Severin Luthi, embraces him. This is, as tennis fans the world over know, a big, big win, a big, big day. The first Swiss Davis Cup. This almost makes up for not having a blue water navy. And Roger Federer pulled it off.
After such a performance, closing out a great year, you cannot help but hand it, once again, to the Swiss maestro as the finest contemporary player. However, this renders poignant the position of his near-contemporary and compatriot Stan Wawrinka, doomed to be the perennial “number two Swiss.” Maybe poignant is too strong a term. Wawrinka is recognized as a great player, ending this year fourth in the ATP ranking.
“Stan the Man,” “Stanimal” as Federer used to call him for his grit, is the defending Australian Open champ. He played magnificently in the doubles rubber, the key to Switzerland’s victory. He consistently hit serves that the French side, Julien Benneteau and Gasquet, could not return other than as setups for slam-aways by Federer, guarding the net. His returns of serve were fantastic. Coming to the net with Federer, he turned the Swiss side into a stonewall that the French could not breach. The two friends swept the French so decisively in that match you had to wonder why they are not playing doubles in the big tournaments. The answer of course is that as they are both by definition contenders for singles crowns at the tournaments and they cannot, in today’s game, take the energy and focus away from their main objective. And they did pair up to win Olympic gold a few years ago.
Great as Federer and Wawrinka are, it was bold of Luthi to send them into the doubles rubber as replacements for the announced team of Marco Chiudinelli and Michael Lammer. But he had foreseen this as a possible requirement, guessing that Switzerland might not have a 2-0 lead going into the doubles on the second day. With less than a 2-0 lead, against players such as Monfils and Tsonga who have proven they can beat them, it was risky to not give them a day off.
With Swiss perfectionist mania, Luthi months ago hired David Macpherson to consult on doubles. Macpherson, former Australian doubles champ and since 2005 the coach of the era’s best doubles team, the Americans Mike and Bob Bryan, is the Phil Jackson of tennis coaches, the Bruce Bochy, the Tony La Russa. He anticipates everything. Surely he encouraged Luthi. to go with his natural reaction to the split rubbers of day one and field his A team in the doubles rubber. Davis Cup play is like playoffs — every match, like every game, is played as if the championship depends on it. Federer and Wawrinka would be tired for day three, but if they did not win this one France would go into day three with the big mo, a mental edge. Additionally, you could not know then that Tsonga’s elbow was hurt and Federer would be facing Gasquet, an easier assignment — with all due respect for Gasquet — than going up against the big man from Le Mans, who historically has given Federer more trouble than the man from Beziers. Gasquet was 2-12 against Federer; Tsonga was 5-11.
If this is what Macpherson did for Federer-Wawrinka in a few months of consulting, you understand why the Bryan’s have been on top of the doubles world since he joined their team. Benneteau is one of the best doubles anchors; with Roger-Vasselin he won at the French Open this year. Gasquet joined him rather than his regular partner due, one guesses — the French did not offer an explanation — to his big groundstrokes, presumably intended to keep the Swiss in the back court. Which is surely one of the factors Macpherson anticipated and the reason he emphasized the net game: counter their strategy by going directly against it. It worked.
Which would have been in keeping with what Federer has been doing anyway all year. Federer always has had a good net game, but he has doubled down on it since he began working with Stefan Edberg, and it has clearly paid off. Two cheers for Switzerland then, one for France.
It is sad for the cohort that broke into the tennis big time as the “new musketeers,” allegedly reminiscent of France’s glory years when it kept the Davis Cup in Paris six years in a row thanks to the “four musketeers” (Americans would know, at least, the name of the one who went on to make a fortune in the polo shirt biz with a crocodile logo). These new fellows have fallen short in two finals now, but they ain’t quitting.
Well done all around, then, and ’tis not the win or lose but how you play the game. Until Australia, gentlemen, and enjoy the holidays.