Nov 23, 2014

Two Deep vs.Too Deep

At least that's how some of the wishful thinkers who were predicting the Davis Cup were gossiping. Switzerland with two top five players against an assortment of French players ranked just outside the top ten to just within the top fifty. The next Swiss player was in a different continent...

...on a different planet.

The Theory of Depth went so far as to completely discount the chances of the Swiss team. Federer and Wawrinka would be tired, the French would be fresh and playing at home. Two stalwarts could punish the Swiss on day 1, and then two other equally competent stalwarts could finish them off in the reverse singles.
That is not even counting the doubles, which the French were supposedly deep enough to field two specialist duos, each capable of decimating and tiring the Swiss duo, simultaneously.

Next there was the pressure of unfriendly confines. Federer opponents, it is alleged, are often not just facing a formidable and lucky opponent, but also a partisan and rowdy crowd. This extends to players playing on their home soil. Like Murray in London, or Roddick in New York. The French Open has been cited as being basically a Basel crowd for Federer. Reality aside, Federer is a fan favorite and deservedly so, having worked and waited for a long decade before ascending to those heights of popularity and fandom. But this was going to be different. This was to be in Lille, France, and France was competing for the Davis Cup, not just rooting for Federer at the French Open. The crowd was to be loud, rowdy, and to unnerve the Swiss. Particularly the fragile Wawrinka, and to a large extent Federer too, especially if the French could play some inspired tennis.

Assuming the depth and the fandom did not do the trick, surely the surface would. While Wawrinka had won the Australian Open, and Federer was a dominant force on all surfaces, surely clay would be the kryptonite. The season ending tournaments were all on indoor surfaces, hard courts, so while Wawrinka and Federer fought hard on those surfaces, the red clay graveyard would be laid and nurtured, the graves already dug with the left over mud. The lack of match-play alone would be the death knell.

What more could the French and the anti-Federers ask for? Some additional stroke of luck. Indifferent form. Both?

They were not disappointed. Wawrinka lost more than he won in his last several tournaments, and while Federer won enough and often, he did play a lot. More than anyone else among the top players. Not unexpectedly, his back problems returned at the most inopportune of times. Right before the ATP WTF after a hard fought win over Wawrinka. Forced him to withdraw and left him questionable for the following week's Davis Cup finals. If that were not enough, Mirkacalypse ensued driving a temporary but bitter wedge between the two mainstays of Swiss Davis Cup squad.

A week later, the Swiss had triumphed. Two Deep had beaten Too Deep. How was this possible?

I rewind back to the Western Conference Finals of 2000 in the NBA when Shaq, Kobe and a bunch of supposed scrubs were to take on the deep squad of Pippen, Wallace, Stoudemire, Brian Grant, Bonzi Wells, Sabonis, Steve Smith, Jermaine O'Neal and Greg Anthony. Two Deep prevailed then too. Phil Jackson possibly explained it the simplest:
You still have only one ball.
That's what applied here too. At most Wawrinka and Federer had to play two singles each and one doubles. In each encounter, they only had to beat one opponent, and they all used that one ball. The better players are favored to triumph, and they did.

The surface made no difference, in fact, I had expected it to help the Swiss. It might be their weakest surface, but it isn't as if the French were too adept at it themselves. Monfils made a monstrous display, reminiscent of his US Open run, and lent respectability to the Swiss rout. But two extremely talented singles players who had occasionally paired in doubles, notably winning Gold in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 thrashed the semi-doubles specialist team of Benneateau and Gasquet. If anything, I had underestimated the recuperative powers of Federer's back. Prior to the tie, when they first announced the surface, I had predicted a 4-1 win for the Swiss. Later, upon hearing Federer's back problems, I had almost expected a reversal, a 1-4 loss.

The crowd? Well, Wawrinka was the most vulnerable, yet he acquitted himself convincingly and set the tone by not being rattled despite losing a set in his opener. Federer's back and Monfils's ruthless display made the crowd irrelevant, supported as they did the Frenchman.

The bold but obvious decision to bet on their depth with the doubles paid off immensely. In hindsight, it was not a big risk. Had the Swiss been up 2-0, guess what, Luthi would have still opted to finish the tie instead of finding out how long would Federer's back or Wawrinka's mental toughness last.

The crowd was made to be a non-factor by the superlative play of Wawrinka and Federer by a fighting response each time they faced breakpoints, and by Federer's mastery over Gasquet when he played attacking tennis to neither face a breakpoint or to allow Gasquet any opening. The question as to how Federer would fare in a hostile arena?

Answered. For those with shorter memories of exactly how Federer dealt with hostile arenas in the past.

At this point the Theory of Gossip probably involves a host of other conspiracies:

  • The French crowd was not hostile enough.
  • His back was not really injured.
  • Tsonga was hurt worse than Federer. (He was, incidentally)
  • The French did not pick their best team, after all, look at them, they had depth, they could have picked anyone else (except the ones that lost).
  • It was Stan's win, not Roger's.

Well, the last one is simply an outcome, not a conspiracy. In the end, Federer risked big by playing too many tournaments towards the end, nearly paid for it but did manage to fill a small hole in his resume. No, I do not think this greatly enhanced his legacy, and did nothing for this Federer fan other than provide another opportunity to smile at the anti-Federers.

If wishes were horses, Federer would have won Wimbledon 2014. That glorious honor and almost certainly because of it, the YE #1 title went to the best player of 2014: Novak Djokovic.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

. I agree with you all the way