The Toss: For Roger Federer, just how important is the Davis Cup?

Thursday February 9th, 2012

Roger Federer will play John Isner in the second singles rubber as Switzerland takes on the U.S. in the Davis Cup. (Peter Klaunzer/EPA)

Roger Federer and Switzerland host the U.S. for the first round of the Davis Cup. The Swiss have never won a Davis Cup title and on the surface, it seems like a big hole in Federer's career given the caliber of players who have led their nations to titles. But Davis Cup also gets its fair share of critiques. tennis producer C.W. Sesno joins The Toss to debate its importance.

Today’s Toss: How important is the Davis Cup for Roger Federer?

C.W. Sesno: Howdy, Courtney, hope you’ve recovered from those sleepless nights in Australia. But no time for that now, Davis Cup is upon us. Mind those time zones.

Before the 2011 ATP World Tour Finals in London, we debated how important it would be for Federer’s legacy to become the winningest player at the Tour Finals. (Given the format, I’m still a little shocked that north of 81 percent of readers voted the World Tour Finals do play a big role in defining one’s legacy.) I envision this Davis Cup debate will play out similarly, but let’s dive right in.

First things first. The U.S. heads to Fribourg, Switzerland, for the first round of the Davis Cup. The Swiss have never won a Davis Cup title. The last time Federer faced the U.S. in Davis Cup was 2001, and the then-19-year-old came through for three crucial points in three days, winning singles, doubles and singles in a 3-2 victory over a U.S. team led by Todd Martin. He said recently that win "definitely got me in winning ways." So thanks for that.

We know how important Davis Cup can be for the players themselves. Novak Djokovic credits his breakthrough 2011 season, in part, to successfully leading Serbia to an emotional 3-2 win over France in the 2010 Davis Cup final. A year later, Rafael Nadal dropped to his back on the red clay after leading Spain to hard-fought 3-1 victory over Argentina in the final, just weeks after admitting he “had little bit less passion for the game.” (Is there a scarier thought in tennis than a passionless Nadal?) And for those who want to get into the mathematical jumble of, "If A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, how can C be the greatest player of our Era?" debate, what would be more poetic than three successive Davis Cup titles for the Big Three? (Sorry, Andy, we can revisit this when Great Britain makes the World Group.)

Federer claims he isn’t concerned with checking milestones off a list. But while I doubt he’s counting down the matches before reaching 850 or 1,000 wins (I am: He’s 36 and 186 wins away, respectively), he's expressed his desire to win an Olympic gold in singles. A Davis Cup title is another thing that still eludes him, and while the road to the final is a tough one involving topping the U.S. and then likely France and defending champ Spain, Federer could make a strong case for his future political career in Switzerland by taking home the Davis Cup trophy.

But the Davis Cup is undoubtedly a divisive issue, so Courtney, what say you?

Courtney Nguyen: I can just picture Federer answering this question of whether or not he wants to push to win Davis Cup this year. "I mean, yeah, sure, why not, you know?" as he nonchalantly shrugs underneath his trademark "RF" hat. That pretty much sums up Federer's relationship to Davis Cup for me.

Let's start with the general question. How important is Davis Cup? As the top players have regularly committed more recently, its status as a world-class team competition has definitely risen. Djokovic and Nadal have always been committed Davis Cup soldiers (though both, along with Andy Murray, are sitting out this weekend's ties), and each has gained from the event as much as he has given. We're all still trying to figure out how Serbia's 2010 win transformed Djokovic into the dominant force he is now, and Nadal seems to have always relished the chance to lead his country to victory. To me, the way Djokovic, Nadal and other players like Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian treat Davis Cup, at times elevating it to the same level of importance as winning a major, just goes to show, somewhat ironically, how much this team competition means to certain individuals.

It's an often-repeated line: "Tennis is an individual sport." And that's what makes Davis Cup (and its less-popular though equally sassy kid sister, Fed Cup) so special. But that team aspect is precisely what hurts it when we step back and think about how important it is in the grand scheme of things.

When tennis is a game played by individuals, and those individuals are judged on their individual results, how can we really hold it against anyone to de-prioritize Davis Cup? I look no further than Federer, who is tremendously knowledgeable about the history of the game and unabashed in his respect for its traditions. He's chasing the greats and yet, until recently, he's never made an active play for one of the titles that all the greats have: Davis Cup. If one of the greatest players of all time ignores Davis Cup during much of his prime, how important can it really be?

Not that I think Federer ignored Davis Cup because he thought it to be trivial. More likely is the fact that he, much like Murray, never had a team around him that he felt could get him a good shot at the title. That changed when Stanislas Wawrinka became a top 10 player in 2008, but by then the Swiss were in the Europe/Africa zonal group, trying to play their way back into World Group, and it probably wasn't helpful that Federer was struggling with mono as well. Back into World Group in 2009 and 2010, Federer elected not to play in either of the first-round ties (which the Swiss lost to the U.S. and Spain), instead swooping in for the later rounds to help ensure the Swiss didn't get relegated. It was a canny move by Federer who, by helping keep Switzerland relevant, left his Davis Cup options open without over-committing. Never were his services more necessary than last fall, when he boarded a plane after his bitter loss to Djokovic in the U.S. Open semifinals to head to Australia to help the Swiss gain promotion to World Group for the 2012 season.

History dictates that Federer would sit out this weekend's World Group tie against the Americans. But times have changed and Federer clearly has Davis Cup on the brain. For the first time since 2004, Federer is playing a World Group tie. Why the change? It's tough to say. Is it the need to fill the hole in his résumé? Has he caught Olympic fever, one of the symptoms of which is flag-waving patriotism? Has he grown sick of seeing his two biggest rivals owning something he does not have?

What do you think accounts for the change of heart, Chris? I always thought Fed would remain neutral toward Davis Cup (Swiss joke!) but now he's gone from "Eh" to "Allez!" during a year in which, as you point out, Switzerland's been given a very tough draw.

Sesno: You raise an interesting point regarding the team around him and the importance of another top 10 player in Wawrinka. How important is it to have two top guys to carry the team? When the Swiss took on the Aussies last September, Federer and Wawrinka were the only two players to take the court. Federer won both his singles, lost doubles with his good buddy Stan, and because Wawrinka lost the opening singles rubber against Bernard Tomic, the tie came down to Wawrinka vs. Hewitt. Wawrinka prevailed 4-6, 6-4, 6-7 (7), 6-4, 6-3 to give the Swiss a 3-2 win. And that effort wasn’t lost on Federer.

"It's only normal for me to play the first round after that heroic effort of his," Federer said recently.

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In the upcoming tie against the U.S., Swiss team captain Severin Luthi has elected to use only Federer and Wawrinka for all five rubbers again. So if Federer can beat John Isner and Mardy Fish, the Swiss will be in good shape to take this tie and advance to the quarterfinals.

But like you say, it’s hard to really know how important the Davis Cup is to Federer. The image you mentioned above is really spot on. Anytime Federer hits a milestone or accomplishes a first, he seems to just shrug it off. And the questions you raise above are valid as well. Is it patriotism? Wanting to fill a hole in his résumé?

I can’t shake the thought that it’s more about some level of frustration with the last two years’ results against his biggest rivals. Nadal dominated the scene in 2010; 2011 was all about Djokovic. Though he respects his rivalry with Nadal, Federer, inwardly if not openly, hasn’t lost well to Djokovic. Perhaps he sees Davis Cup as a chance to grab a leg up, or at least match his two adversaries?

We could go back and forth on this all day. But since we can’t know what’s going on inside the Maestro’s head, let’s look at it from another perspective you raised: How important is it to Federer’s legacy to win a Davis Cup title?

The history books, of course, will look first to his Grand Slam titles, and rightfully so. Few can make the argument that the Davis Cup is more important than one or two or 16 Slam titles. But the list of players who led their nations to Davis Cup titles is a legendary bunch: Nadal, Djokovic, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver and Ivan Lendl all played in title-winning finals. We can go further back and add greats like John Newcombe, Pancho Gonzalez and Bill Tilden.

Hear these names and Davis Cup probably isn’t the first accomplishment to come to mind. But it surely isn’t a coincidence. In fact, Federer has to be the most notable player without a Davis Cup title. And while I really don’t want to bring in the “how many years does he have left” debate, he’s surely running out of time. So Courtney, will history look differently on Federer’s career if he can’t join that elite list? Would a Davis Cup title elevate his G.O.A.T. status? Or have the times changed and Davis Cup just isn’t as important anymore?

Nguyen: I think it's unfair to hold Davis Cup against Federer but that doesn't mean it's not, in fact, a missing piece in his résumé. Why should a player's legacy be tarnished because he didn't have compatriots who could help field a quality team? Nadal gets the benefit of having a deep Spanish bench; Federer doesn't have a well of Swiss talent to draw on. So it doesn't seem right that Federer's legacy should be tarnished (even if only slightly) because of circumstances out of his control.

That said, what Djokovic was able to do in 2010 to lead Serbia to the title makes me think it wouldn't have been that hard for Federer to have at least tried to make a run  at the title once or twice. I think a Swiss team solely composed of Federer and Wawrinka would have had a good chance to advance and test the top teams. I would have loved for him to commit to Davis Cup the last two years to see what would have happened. Have some faith in your boy Stan, Roger!

So if Federer can't bag a Davis Cup title, how will that affect his legacy? Not much, really. You can't compare Davis Cup to majors or match records. But if Nadal and Djokovic end up matching him in Slam wins and other G.O.A.T.-type metrics, then surely his lack of a Davis Cup title will come up as a tiebreaker of sorts. Again, I don't think that's necessarily fair, but then again, having a second serve crushed past you on match point isn't necessarily fair either. Stuff happens.

You decide: Vote in the above poll and sound off in the comments to let us know your thoughts on Davis Cup.
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