NEUCHATEL, SWITZERLAND: At the end of a highly successful but exhausting US Open that culminated in his first Grand Slam semifinal appearance - not to mention the demanding six-week North American swing that went with it - Stanislas Wawrinka was asked by a journalist whether the ideal text message he could get from home would be from his fellow countryman and friend Roger Federer who would write: “Stan, take a holiday and I’ll stand in for you in the Davis Cup tie against Ecuador next week.”
Wawrinka replied: “No, my dream is that Roger would text me and say, ‘Go and win this tie and next year I’ll be a part of the team’.”
As ever, Swiss Davis Cup fortunes all depend on Federer, although no longer because he is clearly the best player in the country if not the world, but because he could very well be the best No. 2 that any country could wish for in Davis Cup. Of course, whether or not Wawrinka overtakes Federer in the rankings in the New Year – they’re currently at No. 6 and No. 10 - is immaterial. The fact is that together they represent arguably the strongest two-man team in the world.
Eric Keller, the vice-president of the Swiss Tennis Federation, said they would approach Federer to find out about his availability in 2014 soon after Wednesday’s World Group draw. The Swiss, of course, would love to have Federer available for ties home and away, but it’s the home ties that give them the biggest administrative headache because if Federer is playing – as Roy Scheider of Jaws fame might say – it’s a case of “we’re gonna need a bigger stadium” – as much as six times bigger attendance-wise whenever Switzerland’s favourite son is playing. Unfortunately, the federation sometimes don’t know about his availability until just days before a tie.
Clearly Switzerland compare very favourably with the opposition: Serbia don’t seem quite as strong as in 2010 when they won the title and while Spain, with their strength in depth, can never be discounted the doubles has always been a possible Achilles Heel for them. The truth is that rarely is any opponent in a position to expose it. Radek Stepanek and Tomas Berdych, of Czech Republic, did in last year’s final, and so might Wawrinka and Federer if given the chance.
They were the Olympic champions in Beijing in 2008 and if they played more regularly together – as Berdych and Stepanek do – they could once again be a force in the game, but they need to rediscover that understanding. Their record, the Olympics apart, is not great: in Davis Cup it’s 2-3 and in all competitions 13-8.
Berdych and Stepanek could be about to prove for a second consecutive year that it’s possible to win the Davis Cup with just two very good players, just as Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic did in 2005 – in fact, the former almost did it single-handedly since Ancic didn’t win a live singles rubber until he won the clincher in the final, whereas Ljubicic won seven.
After defeating Ecuador in two days to return to the World Group – the Swiss bounce back and forth between the World Group and the play-offs with almost monotonous regularity - Severin Luthi, the Swiss Davis Cup captain and a close friend of Federer, remarked: “We wanted to absolutely show that we can win without Roger in the team.”
But winning without Federer against a team with an average singles ranking of No. 549 and an average age of 23 proves very little, other than that Switzerland can beat the minnows of the world, or in the case of Ecuador, one of the coming young nations.
Next year could very well represent Federer’s and Wawrinka’s last chance of Davis Cup glory. Wawrinka, somewhat belatedly, is playing the best tennis of his life, but it’s worth noting that he will be 29 next March while Federer will be 33 in August. Even Marco Chiudinelli, their No. 3 player, is just turned 32.
On Saturday the ITF presented one of its commitment awards here in Neuchatel to Marc Rosset, also a former Olympic champion, although in his case in singles, at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. His last Davis Cup tie was in the semifinals of 2003. It’s incredible to think, given the talent at Switzerland’s disposal, that in the 10 years since they have never again gone as far in the competition.
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