Even the most ardent tennis fans usually struggle to suppress a yawn when it comes to the Davis Cup. The nation vs. nation thing just never really seems to work in tennis, and the fact that the biggest stars tend to participate only intermittently (and without much enthusiasm) has depressed interest in the event. If the players don't give their all to the Davis Cup, why should we?
But thanks to Roger Federer, this year was different. Federer, after years of ambivalence, decided that he wanted to add a Davis Cup title to his long list of achievements, and he and Stan Wawrinka have now led their native Switzerland to the finals, where they will square off against France. The match, which will be played this weekend in Lille, France, is full of intrigue and irony. Federer is an adored figure in France, but will patriotism turn the crowd against him? Or will the fact that all four members of the French team — Jo Wilfred Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet, and Julien Benneteau — reside in Switzerland (for tax purposes, of course) mute the enthusiasm for the home side?
The intrigue ratcheted up dramatically last weekend. Federer and Wawrinka met in the semifinals of the ATP World Tour Finals in London on Saturday. Federer won in a third-set tiebreaker after Wawrinka squandered four match points. It was a crushing loss for Wawrinka, who has had an up-and-down year since winning the Australian Open in January and who has always resided in Federer's shadow. But the aftermath turned downright surreal. Federer and Wawrinka supposedly got into a heated argument back in the locker room. It has since been reported that Federer's wife, Mirka, exchanged words with Wawrinka late in the third set and that this touched off the dispute. Federer was supposed to play Novak Djokovic in the final the next day but withdrew an hour before the match, citing health concerns. John McEnroe, on ESPN, said that Federer had tweaked his back in the match against Wawrinka and had delayed getting treatment because of the confrontation in the locker room. McEnroe suggested that the delay had made the back worse and was a factor in Federer's decision to withdraw from the final.
Federer and Wawrinka arrived in Lille on Monday, and both tweeted a team photo shortly thereafter in an obvious bid to put the controversy to rest. But that won't be so easy. It is jarring to see Federer embroiled in a controversy; he is the greatest ambassador tennis has ever had, and until now, his career has been as turmoil-free as it has been glittering. The dustup with Wawrinka is going to be a topic of discussion throughout the weekend in Lille. And apart from whatever transpired between Federer, his wife, and Wawrinka, the Federer-Wawrinka semifinal may have dealt a serious blow to Switzerland's chances. If Federer is injured (he was out Monday and Tuesday, but back on the court Wednesday), the Swiss are almost surely doomed, and even if he is fine, they may be doomed.
Wawrinka was always going to be the key to Switzerland's hopes. Assuming Federer wins both of his singles matches (which shouldn't be assumed — the final is being played on clay, which is not his best surface, and Tsonga and Monfils are both capable of beating him), the Swiss are going to need Wawrinka to come through in at least one match. If he plays doubles, with or without Federer, he is going to have to deliver, and there's a very good chance that he will have to take at least one of his two singles matches if the Swiss are to win. Wawrinka won the Australian Open in January but has had an up and down year since then, and he's had trouble in the past handling the pressure of the Davis Cup. The manner in which he lost to Federer last weekend in London — squandering four match points — was a psychological blow that may have huge ramifications in Lille. In his press conference after the match, he was philosophical. "I can either be destroyed or bounce back," he said.
The French, who have won the Davis Cup ten times (Switzerland has never won it), are not without question marks, too. Tsonga and Monfils can both be flighty (Monfils is famously so), and Gasquet is not always an ace under pressure. The match is going to be played in a 27,000 seat arena, and nerves are unquestionably going to be a factor on both sides of the net. But after what transpired in London over the weekend, the French have to be liking their chances.