Thursday November 20th, 2014

The most anticipated Davis Cup final in years is set to kick off at 8 a.m. ET on Friday morning, as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils lead France in its quest to capture its 10th Davis Cup title, while Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka try to bring the trophy back to Switzerland for the first time. 

How the teams match up

With the obvious caveat about how lineups can change up to an hour before the match, here's how the weekend looks after Thursday's draw ceremony:

Friday:

  1. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Stan Wawrinka
  2. ​Gael Monfils vs. Roger Federer

​Saturday: Julien Benneteau/Richard Gasquet vs. Marco Chiudinelli/Michael Lammer

​Sunday:

  1. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga s. Roger Federer 
  2. Gael Monfils vs. Stan Wawrinka

Federer's fitness

A week ago, Switzerland was looking to be the firm favorites heading into this weekend's tie. Federer was on a roll and Wawrinka has found his best tennis once again at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. Then they clashed in a grueling semifinal last Saturday that left Wawrinka demoralized after squandering four match points and Federer wounded with a back injury -- one that ultimately forced him to give just the third walkover in his career in the title match the next day. Now the question is whether Federer's back will let him play two best-of-five set matches on clay in cold conditions. 

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After a 30 minute light hit on Wednesday, Federer felt fit enough get up at the crack of dawn for a heavier hit with Wawrinka on Thursday morning. He's ruled himself ready to go for Friday's match against Monfils. "Obviously if I'm stepping out on the court, that means I can play,” he said. “That's most important. I'm just really pleased that I'm actually able to play tomorrow. I'll give it a go."

Federer is 8-2 against Monfils (4-0 on clay) and 11-5 against Tsonga (2-1 on clay). Federer has never lost to Monfils in a best-of-five match, most notably was the pair's match at this year's U.S. Open, where the Swiss saved two match points to win 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2​. Things have been far more tricky against Tsonga. The big-hitting Frenchman, who may have actually benefitted more from a match on hard court as opposed to clay, beat Federer at the Shanghai Masters in 2013 and the Paris Masters in 2010.

Rusty or Rested?

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#TBT: France's last victory at the 2001 Davis Cup

While Federer and Wawrinka head into the final event of the year with plenty of matches under their belts, the French team has been on the sidelines resting. Tsonga and Monfils have played a combined 13 matches in seven events since the U.S. Open, while Federer and Wawrinka have played 29 matches in 11 events. The French squad won't be able to blame fatigue if they can't play their best tennis.

But will Tsonga and Monfils be sharp enough to upend the Swiss on Day 1? There's no "playing yourself into form" in Davis Cup and a slow start could mean a 0-2 hole.

France: The model of modularity

Even though Marco Chiudinelli and Michael Lammer could play a massive role in this tie if they indeed get tapped for doubles, the Swiss are a two-man team. The stress and focus over Federer's back simply highlights that. But on the other hand, the French are a direct contrast. Captain Arnaud Clement has the luxury of flexibility with the amount of talent and depth on the French bench.

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Roger Federer tests injured back during first practice in Lille

All four men are ranked in the Top 30, and if Tsonga or Monfils stumble, he has Gasquet and Benneteau in the wings. Gilles Simon, a finalist at the Shanghai Masters last month, is in Lille practicing as well. Each player on the French team can step in and play doubles or singles and the concern over resting players or overextending players isn't as big as for the Swiss. Depending on how the tie unfolds, Clement's decision-making could be tested.

Stan the Man

Federer has never hidden his general apathy for Davis Cup. While some of his rivals, like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, went out of their way to win the trophy, Federer has generally remained on the sidelines and downplayed the importance of the event to his personal legacy. Even last week he told USA Today his opinion hadn't really changed. "It would be great and it would go down as a big moment in tennis history in Switzerland," he said. "I see it more as something for fans, the Swiss federation, and for the other players on the team rather than something for me necessarily."

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Now contrast that to Wawrinka: he's been the Davis Cup stalwart for Switzerland. When Federer skipped the competition last season, it was Wawrinka who played to ensure Switzerland remained in the World Group, which ultimately gave them the chance to make this run to the final. After winning the Australian Open in January, his focus turned to winning Davis Cup this year. This has been his goal and he wants it badly. With Federer's fitness in doubt, he could be the one who plays the hero this weekend. 

Wawrinka and Tsonga will kick off play on Friday. Tsonga leads their head-to-head 3-2 but they haven't played since the Madrid Open last year. All five of their matches have gone the distance, with the decisive sets going 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. They are 2-2 on clay and split their two meetings at the French Open. A win by Wawrinka on Day 1 would be massive, as it would take some of the pressure off Federer. But should the tie come down to a decisive fifth-rubber on Sunday, it would be Wawrinka who, barring injury, will take the court for the Swiss. He is 2-2 against Monfils and the two have never played on clay. 

The pressure is on France

Throughout the fall season, after France booked its spot in the final by beating the Czech Republic, Tsonga and Monfils started pulling out of tournaments to rest their bodies and heal any niggling injuries. It seems as though everything has been geared towards this weekend. The Stade Pierre Mauroy will be filled to the brim with 27,000 bundled up French fans doing their trumpeted "Allez!" cheer. The French have home court advantage, a rested team of talented players, and an injured and tired opponent. That's the perfect recipe for pressure and expectation.

Is the crowd going to boo Federer?

This might be the biggest question of the weekend. The man is universally loved wherever he plays and the French team is already prepared for this. Simon has already asked fans to check their respect and love for Federer at the door. The French fans will support their team but whether they cross the line to make it an antagonistic environment for Federer, that remains to be seen. 

Prediction: France 3-2.

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