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Another link in Roger Federer's legacy

11/23/2014
Play3:28
Federer, Switzerland Win Davis Cup

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Howard Bryant discusses Roger Federer's 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 win over Richard Gasquet to clinch the Davis Cup title for Switzerland.

As they like to say, there is no “I” in the word “team.” But there is one in “Davis Cup team,” and that factor -- the artful combination of individual performance and team destiny -- is but one of the things that makes this such a great event.

That premise was amply demonstrated again Sunday, as Roger Federer led Switzerland to its first Davis Cup championship with a brilliant 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 win over Richard Gasquet in the fourth rubber, clinching the championship for the Swiss 3-1. (The fifth rubber wasn’t played.)

Occasionally, a Davis Cup tie is just as much about the “I” as the “we,” and just as much about one man’s legacy as it is about a nation’s record. That was the case in December 1995, when Pete Sampras played the best clay-court tennis of his life and won all three points (two singles and the doubles, in yoke with Todd Martin) on agonizingly slow indoor red clay in Moscow. It was also the case in Lille, France, on Sunday, as Federer finally added a Davis Cup championship to a résumé that is already as thick as the telephone directory in his hometown of Basel, Switzerland.

With Switzerland holding a 2-1 lead going in, Gasquet -- he of the windmill-grade backswings -- was France’s last hope. Gasquet, ranked No. 26, was called upon over Julien Benneteau to play in place of France No. 1 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The French team announced that an elbow injury left Tsonga unavailable.

Poor Gasquet. Federer pounded him mercilessly in a one-sided drubbing that took all of an hour, 52 minutes. Gasquet is known for his backhand, which he hits with a great flourish. A backstroke would have served him better while he was drowning in an outpouring of Federer forehands, as he hit 29 winners off that side alone.

Federer put 72 percent of his first serves into play and won 84 percent of those points. He penetrated Gasquet’s serve early and often. If you insist in finding some fault in Federer’s stats, blame him for converting just five of 16 break points -- a nice problem to have, in light of the fact that Federer allowed Gasquet no break points at all.

The Swiss were able to wrap up this championship with relative ease despite facing routine and unique hurdles. They surmounted those obstacles because they didn’t allow personal conflicts (the tiff the previous week between Federer and Stan Wawrinka), unexpected challenges (Federer’s back injury) or hubris to taint their effort.

There’s also this: Those “boring” and “conservative” Swiss who had to buy their way into the event simply shamed the host nation’s fans with their unbridled, voluble enthusiasm. The French managed to set an attendance record for a sanctioned tennis event (over 27,000 fans, most of them French, packed the Stade Pierre Mauroy each day), but that mob set no new mark in the support department. Could it be that the team, which hasn’t won the Cup since 2001 despite the dazzling array of talent at its beck and call, has lost the French fans?

It’s a shame that, rightfully or not, an individual story (Federer’s) will dominate most narratives of this final. For this was a Davis Cup rich in storylines and brimming with the elements that make the competition so intriguing. This was the tie in which Wawrinka really stepped up and out from Federer’s shadow. He played a terrific match against Tsonga to launch the final and played so well in the doubles that the Swiss were able to accomplish a mission almost as important as the principal one of winning that rubber: getting off the court as quickly as possible to spare stress on Federer’s tender back.

On a related front, Swiss captain Severin Luthi’s decision to bring in U.S. doubles coach David Macpherson (his protégés: Bob and Mike Bryan) to help the Swiss maximize their chances in the critical “swing match” doubles was a stroke of both selflessness and brilliance.

As for the decision by French captain Arnaud Clement to throw Gasquet, the lamb, in with Federer, the lion, in this critical match, well …

Sure, the French options were limited. But Gasquet was woeful in singles all fall. He was relentlessly picked on and mentally ruined in the doubles, and he can’t return serve unless it comes with a prepaid return label. Benneteau had done a good job nursing Gasquet through the doubles and might have been the better choice.

The only bright spot for the French was Gael Monfils. The beating he inflicted on Federer on Friday now looks like it had a lot less to do with Federer’s back than with his gag reflex -- not to mention Monfils’ skill and mental strength.

Now that Federer has won a Davis Cup championship, his critics have one less arrow in their quivers. Immediately after the match, Federer oddly -- and perhaps a teensy-weensy bit disingenuously -- downplayed the amount of personal satisfaction he derived from the win. He insisted that the win was not for his legacy. It was “one for the boys.”

That was an unconvincing claim but the only unforced error he committed on the day Switzerland -- and Federer -- finally broke the Davis Cup hex.