THE Swiss are renowned for their neutrality but as they headed to France in an attempt to win their first Davis Cup final, they were digging in for battle.
Their two star players were supposed to be at loggerheads, their main man was struggling with a back injury while their No 2 was in fighting mood. This did not bode well.
Sure enough, by the time the opening skirmishes were done yesterday, France and Switzerland were level pegging with a point each after Stan Wawrinka brushed aside Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roger Federer creaked to defeat against Gael Monfils. The Swiss had an alp to climb if Federer was to win the one trophy missing from his mighty collection.
Just last weekend, Federer and Wawrinka were having a dust-up over the behaviour of Federer’s wife, Mirka, during their semi-final at the ATP World Tour Finals. Wawrinka claimed that she had called him a cry baby when he complained to the umpire about her constant courtside commentary on Saturday night. The row was the talk of the town, but of more concern to the Swiss team was the fact that Federer hurt his back during the match and in the past five days, he had managed just two, gentle practise sessions.
In front of the raucous crowd yesterday, Federer was blown away in the opening set as Monfils, a showman born and bred, lapped up the atmosphere and played like a man possessed to win 6-1, 6-4, 6-3. The only positive note for the Swiss was that Federer gradually started to feel better as the match wore on. With fingers firmly crossed, he thinks his back will improve in the next couple of days. That coupled with Wawrinka’s form in the opening match, has given the Swiss hope that the Davis Cup could yet be theirs.
“It wasn’t all negative,” said Federer. “I started to feel better as the match went on. That’s very encouraging, I must say.
“The problem became that I didn’t play on clay much. That’s a good problem for me to have, to be quite honest. It put the back issues on the back burner, which is better this way.”
Wawrinka is not the world’s most assertive man. He has spent most of his career skulking in the shadows of the mighty Federer and even when he won his first – and possibly only – grand slam title this year at the Australian Open, the sudden success sent him into a flat spin. Now expected to play like a major champion every time he stepped on court, he retreated into his shell and his results limped from mediocre to terrible for much of the year. He was, once more, the forgotten Swiss.
Yesterday, though, he stepped out of those shadows and showed the 27,432 in the Pierre Mauroy stadium – a record for a Davis Cup final – what he was made of. He dismissed France’s best player 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, overcoming a minor fit of the jitters after the first set and claiming the opening point of the tie for Switzerland.
“I was feeling good,” he said. “You know that you have a lot of pressure when you come on a Davis Cup final. You know with everything that happen this week with Roger’s back, there is more pressure on me because we can see it’s tough for him so far. Today it’s important to show them that I’m there.”
Only in the second set did Wawrinka come unstuck, throwing in a sloppy service game to drop serve on a double fault and giving Tsonga the chance to get a toehold in the match.
This momentary lapse came moments after some wag in the crowd yelled out “Cry baby, cry!” The lone, French voice was roundly booed but his timing was perfect: Wawrinka’s serve was crumbling and his backhand was miles off target. No matter – he regrouped within a handful of games and closed out the win with ease.
If the physio’s can cure Federer’s back with similar swift efficiency, Switzerland still have a fighting chance of Davis Cup success.