Roger Federer traces the trail of his tennis tears to a watershed moment on his home court. A then 19-year-old Federer, sporting a pony tail and a few years removed from his days as a Basel ball boy, returned to his home town and won three matches to lift Switzerland to a 3-2 win over a United States squad in a stirring 2001 Davis Cup performance so physically and emotionally draining, Federer was moved to tears at its conclusion.
"I think it was my first emotional outburst on a tennis court because I was so exhausted on Sunday after winning singles, doubles and singles," Federer recalled. "It was a start of great things for me and I'm happy playing America again."
This weekend, American fans may get a little weepy as the 16-time Grand Slam champion makes his first Davis Cup first-round appearance since 2004, when he joins forces with Olympic gold medal-winning doubles partner Stanislas Wawrinka in leading Switzerland against the United States on the red clay of Fribourg.
An in-form Federer, who is 24-1 since the U.S. Open, is also a combined 9-1 lifetime versus probable American singles starters Mardy Fish and John Isner. The tie will be played on red clay, which has served as a sink hole for American Davis Cup fortunes in the past. Finally, the absence of American doubles standout Bob Bryan, whose wife, Michelle, gave birth to the couple's first child, daughter Micaela, on Jan. 31, makes Swiss closure seems as cleanly inevitable as erasing a clay-court ball mark with the swipe of a shoe sole, right?
Not exactly. Although American dreams have dissipated in the dirt of losing three of their past five Davis Cup ties on clay, they've won their past two clay-court ties on the road against non-powerhouse nations Colombia and Chile.
Obviously, Switzerland represents a significant step up in class. But if the U.S. can attack Wawrinka, who has won six of his past seven Davis Cup singles matches contested on clay, and can squeeze out a singles win in Friday's opening day of play, it has a shot to surprise.
That thought may sound as unconventional as appointing Bethanie Mattek-Sands as official U.S. uniform designer, but consider that Isner has beaten Wawrinka in two of their three meetings, including a straight-sets win in their lone clay-court clash in 2010. Fish is 2-0 against the man with the brilliant one-handed backhand, Wawrinka, and though neither American is a speed merchant, both are capable of playing all-court tennis.
The Swiss, who are playing a home tie on clay for the first time in six years, have selected the slow surface to negate American service strength and exploit the fact that neither American moves on clay like Michael Chang -- or Michael Russell for that matter. But the 6-foot-9 Isner possesses such a mammoth serve, he'd hit his share of aces if the service box were a swamp. And Fish can be a ferocious server as well -- a key quality in Davis Cup, which features no fifth-set tiebreaker.
In 2011, Isner led the ATP in service games held (91 percent of the time; Federer was second at 90 percent), and Isner and Fish finished in the top six in holding serve on clay last season. Although Isner has won just one clay-court Davis Cup singles match and breaks serve about as often as he breaks rackets, he's usually competitive on clay. He pushed Novak Djokovic to five sets on the red clay of Belgrade in the 2010 first round and stretched Rafael Nadal to five sets in the French Open first-round last May.
Fish will try to rebound from a disappointing Australian Open by trying to manage his emotion and the margins more effectively. He has gone the five-set distance in four of his past five Davis Cup singles matches.
The doubles pairing -- likely Mike Bryan and Fish or possibly Bryan and Isher versus Federer and Wawrinka -- could very well become a vital component. Bryan and Fish partnered to outduel Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco on the red clay of Madrid in the 2008 World Group and would be a formidable challenge for the Swiss, who lost their last Davis Cup doubles match to Lleyton Hewitt and Chris Guccione on an unruly grass court in Sydney last September, six months after the Swiss pair reached the Indian Wells final together.
Of course, for that doubles match to matter, the U.S. has to split singles on opening day in order to create a tear-jerker ending more than a decade after Federer single-handedly sent the Americans packing.