Roger Federer’s decision to miss the first tie of the 2010 Davis Cup may disappoint a lot of people, but it should surprise very few.
It’s one thing to cast caution to the wind in the post-U.S. Open window and arrive on a white charger to save your country from dropping out of the World Group.
After all, back in September, Federer was still riding high on the euphoria of breaking the Grand Slam record, was increasingly confident of regaining the year-end No. 1 ranking, and all with a brand-new family in tow.
He must have felt he could conquer the world, and he duly tore the Italians apart, in straight sets, in an “away” tie, and on clay. His feet had not touched the red stuff since his Roland Garros victory three months before, but you’d never have known it from his tennis.
It’s another thing entirely to jeopardize what could be a record-breaking season in support of what is—for all intents and purposes—a lost cause.
For Federer’s Davis Cup decision last September took its toll. He spoke soon afterwards of having aches and pains throughout his body, of urgently needing a holiday, and he promptly disappeared off the radar. He even jettisoned the prospect of extra ranking points by pulling from the entire Asian swing, notably the Masters in Shanghai.
Federer took enough ranking points in Basel and in London to ensure the year-end top spot, but by fewer points than he might have wished. Had Rafael Nadal not hit the buffers at the London finals, the current 1,300-point gap could well have been much smaller.
So when the draw for this year’s Davis Cup was announced, it was to a chorus of excitement mixed with a big dose of uncertainty. In the first round, Switzerland was drawn to play Spain. It was the toughest possible matchup against the champions of 2008 and 2009.
As a tennis nation, Spain is currently without parallel: six men in the top 30 and a dozen in the top 100. To cap it all off, they have the unquestioned world master of clay in Nadal.
The killer blow, therefore, was that the tie would be played in Spain, on clay. What hope for the opposition, no matter who it might be?
Incidentally, if the entire Spanish squad happened to be struck down by illness and lost to the Swiss, the next round offers up the only-slightly-less daunting prospect of France, also with a dozen top-100 players (make that top-70 players!), three in the top 20.
Federer, even backed up by world No.21 Stanislas Wawrinka, would have faced an Everest-sized challenge—and Wawrinka’s participation is in doubt, as his first child is due just before the March tie.
In practice, Federer was looking at three best-of-five rubbers, on a surface that heavily favored his opponents, and with little prospect of success for his country.
He said, during the 2009 Wimbledon, that his main priority, at this stage in his career, was to stay at the top for as long as possible, and that to do so required the kind of careful and precise scheduling that made the Davis Cup difficult to accommodate.
He’s also made no secret of wanting the 2012 Olympic title. That in itself means maintaining his fitness and focus for at least two and half more years, taking him into his 30s.
And there are a lot of other boxes to be ticked on the Federer resume along the way.
Since he regained the No. 1 ranking in July 2009, he has been counting down the weeks until he equals—and attempts to overtake—the Pete Sampras record of 286 weeks in the top spot.
He is already head and shoulders above every other player for consecutive weeks at No. 1—237. But he needs to stay at the top until the French Open to take that Sampras record. On his way, Federer still has to stay on top until February to overhaul Jimmy Connors’ and Ivan Lendl’s totals.
It’s worth noting, incidentally, that Federer is unlikely ever to take the all-time record. Steffi Graf topped the rankings for a total of 377 weeks, closely followed by Martina Navratilova at 331.
There’s another target on the Federer horizon. Andre Agassi won 17 Masters titles, one more than Federer. The first two Masters events of the year are on the hard courts of North America, at Indian Wells and Miami in March.
If he wins one of them, he will equal the Agassi record and put on some extra ranking points. If he should win both, he would claim the record, and make that No. 1 ranking look very secure indeed.
And that’s where the Davis Cup dilemma pinches the most.
The first-round tie is slotted in immediately before Indian Wells. It also follows the intensive Australian hard-court season which, in Federer’s case, involves back-to-back tournaments, in some of the year’s most punishing conditions, from the end of December to the first week in February.
The month between Australia and North America is vital for recuperation and then for fine-tuning the game in preparation for those consecutive Masters events.
Federer is scheduled, as a key part of that fine-tuning, to play the 500 in Dubai, his training-base tournament. The Spanish Davis Cup tie comes straight after Dubai and immediately before Indian Wells.
Not only would the tie add at least a week of tough competition during what is already an intensive period, it would switch the surface to clay. It is the worst of all scenarios.
Little wonder, then, that Federer has declined to participate.
Even without the beckoning of those record books, he has rarely interrupted his carefully-planned schedule with a first-found tie. It’s six years since he played an opening round back in 2004. And this year, now age 28, is no time to change.
But make no mistake about Federer’s willingness to step up to the plate, despite asides from the media about his lack of commitment to Davis Cup and to his country. Federer has played in the competition every single year since he turned pro as a teenager: That’s 11 consecutive years since 1999, and counting.
He’s won 37 of the 48 rubbers he’s played. Compare that with players of a similar age, and whose patriotism is rarely questioned: Andy Roddick, 31 of 42; Lleyton Hewitt 39 of 51; and David Nalbandian 27 of 36.
Compare it, too, with the players whose records Federer is targeting: Lendl, 22 out of 37; Agassi 30 out of 36; and Sampras just 19 out of 28.
When Switzerland is threatened with relegation again, the records show that Federer is likely to get his white charger out of the stable. He has, after all, been the squad’s mainstay for his entire professional career.
When he’s ticked off a few more ambitions—and the slowly burgeoning pool of Swiss players can offer a broader squad—Federer will probably turn his sights on that Davis Cup title.
Meanwhile, he has other races to run.