By Matt Roberts
There are not many things that Roger Federer hasn’t done on a tennis court. But playing in a Davis Cup final is one of them. This weekend, though, that changes. The world number two will be desperate to help guide Switzerland to victory and add the one trophy that has eluded him throughout his illustrious career to his already jam-packed cabinet.
For such an historic and prestigious event, the Davis Cup rarely receives the recognition it deserves. This year, though, the final promises to be one of the most intriguing in years as two of the games’ powerhouses, France and Switzerland, come face to face in Lille.
The French side, captained by Arnaud Clement, boasts one of the most well-rounded teams in the world and their considerable strength in depth has played a big part in helping them reach the final. The four players chosen by Clement for the final, Jo Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet and Julien Benneteau, are all in the Top 30 in the world rankings with Benneteau also ranked number 5 in the doubles rankings.
The Swiss side, on the other hand, rely heavily on two of the top four players in the world, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka. Their other two players, Marco Chiudinelli and Michael Lammer, have respective singles rankings of 212 and 508.
But aside from the very different make-ups of the two teams, there are a number of other reasons as to why the 2014 Davis Cup Final is one of the most anticipated in recent memory.
Firstly, the two sides have had very contrasting preparation periods. The French quartet have had the last two weeks to adapt to clay and fine tune their games at their training base in Bordeaux while Severin Luthi’s Swiss stars have been slugging it out on indoor hard courts at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. Nevertheless, despite practising on the clay, the French players have played very few competitive matches in the last month while Federer and Wawrinka are both match sharp and in good form.
However, the main talking points in the build up to the final have been about the fitness of Roger Federer and about how an apparent feud between Federer and Wawrinka will affect team morale in the Swiss camp.
It’s all come to boil in the past few days after Federer and Wawrinka squared off in a thrilling semi-final at the 02. In what was the by far the most entertaining match of the week, Federer saved four match points on his way to victory in a third set tiebreak. But the match was also played at an incredibly high intensity and it appears that deep in the deciding set there was an incident between Wawrinka and Mirka Federer, Roger’s wife. It has been reported that her support riled the Swiss number two who reacted angrily and complained to the umpire about her behaviour. In the aftermath of the match tempers flared as the two players confronted each other and argued about the issue.
What’s more, a day later, Federer was forced to withdraw from the final after injuring his back in the in the latter stages of his match against Wawrinka. It was just the third time in his glittering career that the Swiss maestro has had to withdraw mid-tournament. He has never retired during a match.
In a press conference on Tuesday in Lille, the Swiss pair faced awkward questions about the issue which has been on everybody’s lips ahead of the final.
Federer didn’t deny the rumours of a rift but confirmed that it is all smiles in the Swiss camp now. “We had a conversation after the match. Everything’s totally relaxed about the situation. There’s no hard feelings whatsoever. We’re having a good time here. We are friends, not enemies.”
It is a relief that everyone can now move on from the incident and concentrate on the tennis because amid all the media frenzy, very little has been said about the actual matches themselves. With Roger and Stan fit and firing, Switzerland would be strong favourites to win the event for the first time in their history. Federer won all five of his singles ties on the way to the final and has played brilliant tennis all year. Wawrinka, meanwhile, produced some of his best tennis last week in London and appears to have found form just in time.
With Federer’s participation in jeopardy, the whole dynamic of the tie changes radically and France will be confident that they can win their 10th Davis Cup title and first since 2001.However, when speaking about his ailment on Tuesday, the 17-time Grand Slam champion was not particularly positive. “It’s definitely not good enough to practice. I wish progress would be faster, but we’re trying hard. I’m hopeful.”
What’s more, the crowd will be expected to play a big role in the outcome. Davis Cup ties have unique atmospheres and undoubtedly generate the best noise in tennis. The final is being played at the Stade Pierre Mauroy which has a capacity of 27,000 which makes it bigger than the Arthur Ashe stadium in New York for the US Open. No doubt the French will be out in force to support Tsonga & Co who will be eager to rise to the occasion.
So as we have seen, there are myriad sub plots already in the build up to the final. Quite simply though, I think it all comes down to whether or not Federer can recover from injury in time to play from the start. If he does, he will be favoured to prove the decisive influence in the final.