Chilly in Switzerland: Roger Federer and the Davis Cup Team

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Chilly in Switzerland: Roger Federer and the Davis Cup Team
Matt King/Getty Images
Can Federer and Wawrinka can still achieve their Davis Cup aspirations?

Switzerland's recent loss to the Czech Republic in the first round of Davis Cup competition has kicked off some of the old tunes from that broken record we've all heard in the past.  

First comes the song "Questioning Federer's Commitment To Davis Cup" followed closely by "In Between Slams So Go With It."  And then finally the merciful outro "Who Cares, The Next Slam is Finally Here!"  

You may have even gotten sidetracked at the beginning by the track "What is the Davis Cup?"  If that's the case, surf on over to Wikipedia and take a look. You'll at least learn the reason why they call individual Davis Cup matches "rubbers."

The most important thing to know about Davis Cup competition right now is that Switzerland (and thus Roger Federer) has never won it.  

Federer is just about the only exception to the rule that every great Open Era player in the history of men's tennis has been on a winning Davis Cup team.  Pretty much every relevant player from Rod Laver through Novak Djokovic has raised the Davis Cup trophy.  

The other exception is Jimmy Connors, who at least made it to the finals with the United States in 1984. 

Federer fans reading thus far will start unconsciously moving to a set of conditioned, Pavlovian responses agreed to long ago at one of their secret meetings.  Responses including, but not limited to, "Davis Cup isn't relevant anymore" or "Switzerland doesn't have enough talent to support Federer."  The former is fairly accurate and the latter is losing steam, as Djoker recently won it with Serbia.  

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At full strength, the Swiss team is a force to be reckoned with.

Regardless, Fed fans can shelve those responses for the moment—that bell has yet to ring.   

The fact is, Roger Federer has been committed to playing the Davis Cup as a representative of Switzerland.  If you doubt that, look no further than Federer's recent Davis Cup Commitment Award.  

The Commitment Award was newly created this year and is to be initially awarded to 299 current and former players that participated in at least 20 home-and-away ties (an interesting cut-off, given Federer has appeared in 22 ties).  

Since 1999, Federer has actually played on the Swiss Davis Cup team every year with the single exception of 2010.  Although that list might eventually be expanded to include 2013—given Switzerland's loss last week.   

Failing to win a competition that dates back to 1900 suggests the Swiss have been on the wrong side of the stick several times before.  However, this loss was particularly difficult to stomach, especially because the matchup featured an agonizing rubber.  

In the third match of the competition, Stanislas Wawrinka and Marco Chiudinelli of Switzerland squared off against Tomas Berdych and Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic.

By the time the grueling affair was over, the two pairs had set a new record for the longest match in Davis Cup history.  After seven hours and one minute on court, the Czech team finally overcame the Swiss by winning the fifth set 24-22.  

One can only wonder how that match might have gone had Wawrinka been paired with his usual doubles partner—Federer.  But the Swiss Maestro wasn't available for the Davis Cup because of his previously stated goal to cut down on his schedule—a category in which the Davis Cup apparently fell. 

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After the doubles marathon, the final rubber of the weekend featured Stanislas Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych, though this time in the singles format.  And that too was a close contest with Berdych winning 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5).  

Wawrinka clearly invested everything he had into Switzerland's effort, and was so emotionally drained by the loss that he broke down in tears during the post-match press conference.  It was a gutsy individual effort, and an understandable response.   

On its own, the loss by the Swiss Davis Cup team amidst the absence of Federer is hardly newsworthy.  It's happened before—many expect it will happen again. 

However, the loss takes on an added dimension given the underlying tension that has been slowly building within the Swiss team—tension which may have been partially to blame for Wawrinka's emotional release during the presser.  

It doesn't require a lot of imagination to wonder whether Federer's involvement could have changed the course of events.  Count Wawrinka as one who's definitely considered the same thing. 

Publicly, the drama on the Swiss team seems to have first boiled over after they fell in striking fashion to the United States in February of 2012.  On this occasion Federer did play, although the 0-5 result wouldn't make you think so.  In a huge upset, a U.S. team featuring John Isner, Mardy Fish and Ryan Harrison beat a near full-strength Swiss side which included Federer and Wawrinka.  

After that loss, Federer made some surprising and controversial comments while speaking in French to members of the Swiss media.  As reported via ESPN.com, Federer said, "I played well enough in doubles, but Stanislas not so much."  He then added Wawrinka "didn't have his best match in singles.  It's a shame, because of that defeat we weren't able to put the U.S under pressure."  

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Wawrinka, Federer's doubles partner in a gold medal campaign at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, happened to be seated next to Roger at the time of those comments.  Although the team and its captain, Severin Luthi, claimed shortly thereafter that the comments were misinterpreted, the situation seemed to foreshadow something more.

Sure enough, in December of 2012, the normally quiet Wawrinka made headlines when he suggested the Davis Cup wasn't a priority for Federer.  As reported by Matt Cronin at Tennis.com, Wawrinka told sport.ch, "Roger has been saying for years that he wants to play the Davis Cup and it is important, but that's apparently not the case...It's a shame how he interprets things to suit his own opinion.  Davis Cup is not a priority for him at the moment."

It's impossible to know whether these comments had anything to do with Federer shaving Davis Cup completely out of his schedule to start 2013, but we can be relatively certain they certainly didn't bridge what must now be viewed as a growing divide.  

At the present time, it seems clear that the Swiss Davis Cup team and the individual player Roger Federer have diverging goals.  Federer announced early that he would limit his tennis schedule in 2013, presumably to help him stay fresh so he could compete at his highest level throughout the entire Grand Slam season.  

Given Federer is approaching his 32nd birthday, it seems like a wise course of action.  It obviously didn't help that the most recent round of Davis Cup action was scheduled to start immediately after the Australian Open, and it probably seemed to Federer a natural place to clear his calendar for recuperation.  

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Davis Cup rewards might outweigh the risks.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Swiss team and their fans (presumably a great majority of them Swiss citizens).  This group undoubtedly would like Federer to play in every possible Davis Cup encounter.  Despite Wawrinka raising his level of play in recent months, it seems like a tall order to expect the team to win Davis Cup without Federer.  A virtual impossibility might be more accurate. 

The result is a situation with no clear-cut bad guy, only an imperfect reality.  Federer is getting older, and wants to ensure he has the reserves necessary to realistically pursue more Slam trophies.  

For their part, the Swiss realize that the window to win the Davis Cup during Federer's career is narrowing.  One group's perfect scenario is thus imperfect for the other—and vice versa.  

On the surface, it would seem the two camps are at an impasse.

It would seem that way.  But maybe it's not.  

Could it be possible that Wawrinka's passionate display for his team and country could change Federer's outlook on the Davis Cup?  Maybe seeing his friend and Olympic teammate in tears will alter Federer's attitude towards winning the Davis Cup.  Maybe by making the Davis Cup a priority, and consequently unlocking the full potential of the Swiss team, Federer will actually find his individual goals more easily achievable.  

It's a fact that Federer has been committed to the Davis Cup.  His commitment thus far has not yielded the desired result.  However, is it possible that Federer hasn't been fully committed to this particular goal?  Wawrinka seems to think so.  

While Federer did play in the Davis Cup almost every year, within those years he often skipped a round here or there.  There's a large, though subtle, difference between commitment and full commitment.

Contrary to popular opinion, the right thing for Federer to do now is fully commit to his team and country.  If he wants to micro-manage his schedule, he could consider knocking out tournaments like the one he is playing in Rotterdam this week in favor of playing alongside his teammates emblazoned with the Swiss flag.  

By resetting his approach to the Swiss team and the Davis Cup in general, Roger Federer could help Switzerland make its mark in Davis Cup history.  And by doing so, he will only add to the legions of people that already revere his game.  

Such an effort would most likely captivate Switzerland, as well as the world.

We have seen Federer's talents set unprecedented individual records, while simultaneously raising the game of tennis to an incredible level.  Maybe, just maybe, becoming the true inspirational leader of the Swiss Davis Cup team will have an equally impressive outcome.  

Novak Djokovic has stated that winning the Davis Cup gave him the confidence to go out and play his best tennis.  Can you imagine just how good Federer could be if his experience is the same?  

When it's all said and done, winning the Davis Cup trophy for himself, his team, and the country of Switzerland might be a lot more valuable than his 18th Slam.  Here's hoping we find out. 

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