File this one under the heading, “Extreme Irony.” Is it possible that Roger Federer’s attempt to add a Davis Cup championship to a résumé that demands appended pages on an almost weekly basis will be wrecked by his teammate and friend, Stan Wawrinka?
That’s the last-minute twist to the upcoming Davis Cup final -- a tie that had no shortage of storylines even before the events of the past few days. Those happenings left folks wondering if Mirka Federer won’t emerge from this tie looking like the Yoko Ono of tennis -- - Ono being the woman who was blamed for breaking up the Beatles.
All right, it’s probably easier to picture the bearish Wawrinka as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer than as either John Lennon or Paul McCartney. But the tiff he had with his megastar teammate over Madame Federer’s repeated heckling of Wawrinka in the semifinal match between the two men the ATP World Tour Finals last week has cast a chill over the most important Davis Cup tie in Swiss history.
It has also forced both Swiss players into issuing those forced, semi-humiliating and not entirely convincing statements about how they really, truly are good friends despite that unpleasant business in London.
“There’s no hard feelings whatsoever,” Federer informed the media the other day in Lille, where France is hosting the final on indoor red clay in an arena that will accommodate upward of 27,000 fans. “We're having a good time here. We are friends, not enemies.” “We had no problem together,” Wawrinka added, diplomatically refraining from adding that in the first place, his beef was with Mirka, not Roger, Federer.
That now infamous semifinal in London produced another obstacle that the Swiss will have to overcome in a tie that increasingly looks destined to break Federer’s heart -- or provide us with the spectacle of Federer breaking his racket over Wawrinka’s head. Wawrinka forced Federer to play nearly three hours in London, and to overcome four match points, before he won. Federer’s back was unable to take the strain, and he had to issue a walkover to Novak Djokovic in the following day’s final.
What’s going on here, a reprisal of “Amadeus,” with Wawrinka playing a bitter and jealous Antonio Salieri to Federer’s Mozart?
As if having to convince the media and fans that Stan and Roger are still super-tight bros isn’t distracting enough, Swiss captain Severin Luthi has multiple other problems to worry about. The biggest of them is that while Luthi is in command of a two-man team, the French have a deep and versatile squad led by world No. 12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Alongside him: No. 19 Gael Monfils, No. 25 Julien Benneteau and No. 26 Richard Gasquet.
Let’s assume that Federer will be in shape to play Friday. (He is scheduled to practice Thursday for the first time since last Saturday). The Swiss will be very lucky to win both Friday singles on red clay before nearly 30,000 French zealots, which means that the “swing match” doubles could be pivotal.
Benneteau won a Grand Slam doubles title this year at the French Open (with Edouard Roger-Vasselin), and he wouldn’t be giving up much -- if anything -- were he to pair with Gasquet or Tsonga. Thus the question becomes: Does Luthi dare play one or both of his two journeymen subs (Marco Chiudinelli, doubles rank No. 206, and/or Michael Lammer, doubles rank No. 528)?
Perhaps the better way to put this question is, can Luthi ask Federer and/or Wawrinka to play a best-of-five doubles sandwiched between best-of-five singles matches on consecutive days on red clay? The obvious answer is “no,” but he might have to do just that -- unless the Swiss are up 2-0 at the end of Friday.
Of course, the wild card here is the mood of the French team -- something that can’t always be accurately predicted. The French dodged a bullet of humiliation in the World Group quarterfinals, when they were almost beaten by what amounted to Germany’s C team -- and on French soil, no less. But les Bleus rebounded from an 0-2 deficit to win the final three matches.
Stung, the French stepped up in their next tie, sweeping the defending champion Czechs behind overpowering singles performances by Gasquet and Tsonga. The French men surrendered a mere 15 games in the first two singles matches. Gasquet and Tsonga applied the finishing touches in the doubles.
The French have developed a reputation as underachievers in recent years; in 2014, they’ve taken on the look of a team of destiny. They surely welcomed the news that the Swiss had been bickering. Mirka Federer is sure to be vocal in her support for Wawrinka as well as her husband come Friday, and between points she might even be caught humming the tune to “Give Peace a Chance.”