It’s hard to envision that someday, when a retired Roger Federer is relaxing in some exotic location, waxing nostalgic on perhaps the finest tennis career ever compiled, that he could have any regrets.
With a career Grand Slam, 17 Grand Slam singles titles, an almost absurd streak of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals reached, among countless other streaks and ATP Record Book entries, it would seem ridiculous to consider that any kind of void could exist in the Swiss Maestro’s career resume.
Of course, hardcore students of tennis might instantly argue that a void does exist, in the form of no Olympic gold medal in singles (he did achieve a gold in doubles in 2008). There’s no debating that Federer’s failure to capture Olympic gold in singles is a profound disappointment to him, but from a tennis “purist” perspective, it is not as significant as one might think. Olympic tennis is a relatively recent phenomenon (1988), and the only players with the distinction of Olympic gold are obviously those who have played in the last 25 years. Historically speaking, then, a gold medal was not even a possibility for the resumes of legends like Laver, Emerson, Borg, Connors, and McEnroe. (Jimbo and Mac were playing in 1988, but well past their primes.)
If one then accepts the premise that the lack of Olympic gold is not a major gap in the Federer resume, is there anything else that qualifies? History shouts a resounding “yes”.
A Davis Cup Championship.
Davis Cup, that venerable annual competition between 16 countries privileged to be in the “World Group”, certainly does not carry the prestige that it once did, but it still exudes a special quality and feeling, as players battle each other with something far greater on the line than personal accolade. At its core, Davis Cup embodies a nobility that regular tournament play lacks, and has been known to elevate seemingly lesser players to memorable feats of tennis heroics. Ask Jimmy Arias about a guy named Hugo Chapacu (1987), or Pete Sampras about a supposedly “washed up” Henri Leconte (1991).
So, in spite of all the marvelous results that he has recorded, Roger Federer has yet to add meaningful success in the unique and historically rich realm of Davis Cup to his personal tennis legacy. However, the 2014 competition presents a tremendous opportunity for Federer to fill in this significant gap in his legacy, not to mention bringing Switzerland a moment of grand national celebration.
Prior to 2005, Federer was quite loyal to Davis Cup, playing regularly from his debut in April, 1999 to Switzerland’s quarterfinal loss to France in 2004. In 2003, Federer had Switzerland in the semifinals at Australia, and held a seemingly insurmountable lead on early-career rival Leyton Hewitt in the tie’s fourth match. A victory would have pulled the Swiss squad even at 2-2. However, Hewitt’s passion for his homeland was too great, and the young Aussie willed himself back from two sets down and a 3-5 deficit in the third to a thrilling victory. It was as though that crushing loss sapped Federer’s desire for Davis Cup, as he played regularly only the next year in 2004, and then severely curtailed his participation beginning in 2005, when he chose not to play at all.
In the years since 2005, Federer has been playing primarily the relegation ties to help keep Switzerland in the World Group, but has not been willing to make a more meaningful commitment to the competition. Even more significant, if one carefully examines Federer’s entire body of work in Davis Cup, an argument can be made that the player possibly considered to be the greatest ever does not own a single signature Davis Cup victory. How can this be?
Of course, by choosing to largely forgo Davis Cup in recent years, and masterfully regulate his schedule as he has been known to do, Federer has kept his body fresh and in peak form. This careful planning has paid huge dividends for him, and is no doubt a major contributor to his personal success. Yet, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have made significant commitments to Davis Cup, and have seemingly not suffered in regular tournament play as a result. Nadal has played a major role in four championship campaigns for Spain, and Djokovic’s role in helping Serbia capture its first Davis Cup title in 2010 was undeniably a springboard to the phenomenal individual success that the Serbian experienced on the tour in 2011.
However, with Spain and Serbia now eliminated in the 2014 Davis Cup competition, two huge obstacles have been removed for several countries, Switzerland the most prominent among them, to experience the thrill of a Davis Cup championship. If both Federer, and his compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka, who has achieved new status among the world’s elite players with his recent Australian Open victory, can both stay healthy and committed to the cause, Switzerland may have the opportunity to drink champagne out of the Davis Cup for the first time. Federer presumably senses the rare chance that has been handed to him, and can add his name to the great lore of the Davis Cup.
A Davis Cup championship might not be as satisfying for Roger Federer as adding another Grand Slam title to his impressive haul, but leading Switzerland to victory would undeniably add to the legacy of one of tennis’ truly special players. That’s a win for tennis fans everywhere.
Information regarding Roger Federer’s Davis Cup career courtesy of Roger Federer: The Greatest, by Chris Bowers; 2011; John Blake Publishing, Ltd., London.