There aren't many firsts left in Roger Federer's legendary career, but he achieved one on Sunday in Lille, France, when he clinched the winning point in the Davis Cup final against France.
Federer's 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 demolition of Richard Gasquet earned Switzerland its very first Davis Cup trophy and culminated a journey that began in Serbia in February this year. Of course, for Federer, this journey actually began back in 1999 when he first represented the Swiss team in Davis Cup.
Back then, Federer was an 17-year-old kid ranked No. 123 in the world without a single title—Slam or otherwise—to his name. Since then, he's won 17 Slams, 82 titles and spent 302 weeks at No. 1.
But, until Sunday, there was one missing spot on his otherwise cluttered resume.
Unlike his rivals Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, Federer has always downplayed the role of Davis Cup in his career. He loved his teammates and loved representing his country, but he was a tennis player, and individual accomplishments came first.
He echoed this sentiment even after winning on Sunday, giving the credit to his teammate Stan Wawrinka, coach Severin Luthi and training staff, and noting that this wasn't something he needed to feel like his career was complete.
"This one is for the boys," he said on court immediately after the win.
However, as Chris Chase of USA Today's For The Win points out, there's no doubting that this victory gives Federer's legacy a boost.
The debate about the greatest tennis player ever will always continue and will never have a definitive answer. But Federer’s argument took a big step today. Rafael Nadal won four Davis Cups. Pete Sampras also won four. Novak Djokovic got his in 2010 and used it as a springboard to a now-historic career. No one can ever say Federer never got his.
That's why this Davis Cup was important for Federer—it's not that anyone thinks he's a better tennis player than he was before he won this title, it just showed another manifestation of the greatness that we've seen over and over again in the past 11 years.
For one of the first times in his career, Federer found himself surrounded by both physical and emotional turmoil headed into this all-important weekend. It all began at the ATP World Tour Finals in London last week, when Federer defeated Wawrinka in the semifinals, saving four match points to win 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(6).
While the scoreline was dramatic enough, it was the aftermath that turned it into a soap opera. Wawrinka was angry at Federer's wife, Mirka Federer, for reportedly calling him a "crybaby" during the match. According to John McEnroe, Federer and Wawrinka then had a drawn-out discussion in the locker room after the match.
To cap things off, the next day Federer withdrew from the final against Novak Djokovic, citing a back injury. This announcement clearly put his participation in Davis Cup into question.
But Federer and Wawrinka were able to come together and turn the soap opera into a fairytale. The two put their differences aside for the good of the team, and fell back on the friendship and chemistry that won them the doubles gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Their front in press wasn't simply united—it was gushing.
While so much of Federer's career has been based on his superior talent and work ethic, in this Davis Cup tie he showed his competitive fire and passion for the sport. He also showed a selfless side of himself that we rarely get to see in an individual sport like tennis.
It's certainly no coincidence that Federer's first Davis Cup title came in the same year that his compatriot Wawrinka won his first Slam and finished the year ranked No. 4 in the world. It's Wawrinka who has been dedicated to Davis Cup throughout his career, and it was Wawrinka who carried the team this week. The Australian Open champion won his opening match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Friday, which kept the team alive as Federer worked out the kinks in his back in his loss to Monfils.
Then, as the two paired together for doubles on Saturday, it was Wawrinka and his powerful backhand that kept the duo on track through some patches where Federer looked lost, particularly at the net. The two ended up defeating the dangerous French team of Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet in straight sets.
There aren't many teams in Davis Cup history that have had two singles players ranked in the top four in the world. Turns out, it's a pretty unstoppable formula.
However, on Sunday the focus turned solely back to Federer. Faced with a chance to clinch the tie for his country, the maestro didn't flinch. His display against Gasquet was vintage: economical, graceful and deadly. Gasquet, who was subbing in for an injured Tsonga, just didn't have anything to counter with.
In the press, Federer played it off like it was all for his teammates, which was a gentlemanly thing to say. But as he dropped to the clay after he converted championship point and hugged his teammates, he turned into a crybaby himself—literally, tears were trickling down his face. It had been a tumultuous week, and this meant a lot—if not to the 17-time Grand Slam champion, to the 17-year-old boy still inside him, just trying to prove that he belongs.
Davis Cup is special. It puts egos and personalities together, throws them in high-pressure situations and challenges them to come together and fight for their country. It forces you to be better, to lift up those around you. It's as close as tennis gets to Ryder Cup, and it has produced some spectacular moments in tennis history.
On Sunday, we all experienced yet another one.
He couldn't do it alone, but at the end of the day, the man who has done it all added yet another significant trophy to his collection. At 33, Federer has nothing left to prove to anyone, but he's proving new things anyways.