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Roger Federer's Davis Cup challenge

9/15/2014

Roger Federer is learning that you may be the all-time Grand Slam champion, a distinguished 33-year-old ambassador for the game, a friend of Michael Jordan and Anna Wintour, and a guy with some hefty hotel bills, considering his two sets of twins, but it still doesn’t get you a free pass to anything a player of your stature might really covet.

This applies with added emphasis to the Davis Cup, where the curious mix of five matches (or “rubbers”) in three days, the choice-of-ground rule (teams alternate hosting ties, no matter how much time transpires between meetings), the importance of the “swing match” doubles and the volatile nature of playing for your country instead of yourself can wreck the form chart in the blink of an eye.

Federer wants to add a Davis Cup championship to his CV; it’s the only piece of his career puzzle that’s still missing. Various factors -- lack of a solid Swiss No. 2 singles player, the siren call of Grand Slam titles, a reluctance to X-out four weeks on the calendar when he made his schedule -- kept the all-time men’s Grand Slam singles champion from pursuing that goal when he was most dominant on the tour.

But over the past year, Stan Wawrinka finally embraced his talent, won the Australian Open and established himself as a top-five player. It did not go unnoticed by Federer, who is still highly competitive at majors but struggling to actually win them. He saw his chance to win a Davis Cup and leaped on it. Some conceded the championship to Federer and Wawrinka the moment Spain (without Rafael Nadal) and Serbia (without Novak Djokovic) flamed out in the first round of the competition, the latter beaten by, yup, Federer & Co.

It sure looked like that coveted free pass for Federer -- or at least it did until this weekend, when the French popped up to complicate things.

Federer and Wawrinka will travel to France at the end of November to meet Les Bleus. Both teams advanced Sunday, with Federer sewing up a fairly smooth win over Italy in Geneva with a fourth-rubber win over the visitor’s top player, Fabio Fognini.

But the French were already sitting with their feet up, sipping champagne by the time Federer finished cleaning Fabulous Fabio’s clock. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga & Co. swept the Czech Republic (who, led by No. 6 Tomas Berdych, were hoping to three-peat) on a gorgeous, sunny weekend at Stade Roland Garros. Now the French look suspiciously like that proverbial “team of destiny.”

Les Bleus have won nine Davis Cup titles, going back to the 1920s and those famous “Four Musketeers.” But they are 0-2 in finals since 2002 and have been accused of playing under potential. That certainly seemed the case when they were one match from elimination for 2014 after just one day of Davis Cup play in April. They lost the first two singles matches of the quarterfinals to a pair of German journeymen. (The average ranking of the French singles players in the tie was 15; that of the Germans sounded more like the call numbers for a light FM radio station: 101.5.)

Badly stung, France snapped to life and averted disaster with a 3-2 win. They then clobbered the Czechs. France’s three singles stars, Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils, have been playing some terrific tennis. They have an excellent doubles player in Michael Llodra and a good sub in Julien Benneteau.

It’s hard to imagine the tie will be played outdoors in France so late in the year (Nov. 21-23). That ought to help Federer, whose game really shines under ideal ambient conditions. But that won’t be a major factor. It’s just a small break for a great champion who isn’t getting away with anything in his Davis Cup quest.