by Michael Mewshaw
And so another season ends, for once with a punctuation point rather than a whimper. It was the often maligned Davis Cup tie which provided 2014 with a fitting conclusion. What began with Stan Wawrinka’s breakthrough win at the Australian Open, neared the end with him getting Switzerland off to a 1-0 lead over France. Then, after Roger Federer was blown off the court by a rampant Gaël Monfils, Stan helped to right the ship and win the crucial doubles rubber. This put Roger in a position to acquire the one jewel missing from his crown. On Sunday, he imperiously dismissed Richard Gasquet for his first Davis Cup title, and moreover, Switzerland’s first in its 114 years of competition.
The delight this spread surely exceeded the frontiers of his tiny landlocked nation. Given the enormous letdown of the ATP World Tour Finals, perhaps “relief” is a better descriptor than “delight.” Only a cynic could take pleasure in the debacle sponsored by Barclays in London. After slogging through half a dozen tournaments to qualify for the event, homeboy Andy Murray fell into a swoon, surrendering meekly to Kei Nishikori, then barely escaping a double bagel against Federer. With local interest nosediving, who would have imagined worse lay ahead?
Djokovic dispatched Nishikori in one semi while Federer hung on in the other to beat his fellow countryman and Davis Cup partner, Wawrinka, in three hotly contested sets. The heat boiled over afterward in the locker room when Stan objected to what he saw as excessive celebrating in Federer’s box. For tennis historians, it’s significant that news of this fracas reached the public via, of all people, John McEnroe, who during his career frequently referred to reporters as “scumbags” who kept their ears pressed to the locker room door. He was especially vituperative at Wimbledon in 1982, when reporters asked after his defeat by Jimmy Connors in the final whether his previous day’s shouting match with Steve Denton had anything to do with the loss. Oh well, what goes around comes around.
Speaking of which, Johnny Mac is now a permanent fixture on the tour who both comes around and goes around more than almost anyone else. At that same 1982 Wimbledon, when asked what he thought of Billie Jean King still playing at the age of 38, McEnroe snarled, “By the time I’m that age I’ll be far, far away from tennis.” Instead, he’s locked in a Laocoön embrace with the game and one has to admit that it would be greatly diminished without him.
There he was at the ATP World Tour Finals, shape-changing from a journalist into a competitor and playing a doubles exhibition with Murray against Pat Cash and Tim Henman after the thunderous anti-climax of Federer’s last-minute default in the singles final. It must be said that the doubles exo managed—and this isn’t saying much—to be more exciting than the pro set between Djokovic and Murray, during which Andy once again played like a man with a severe vitamin deficiency.
Then the show moved across the Channel to Lilles, France, where a clay court was installed in an indoor arena. As Christopher Clarey pointed out in the international edition of the New York Times, all of the players on the French Davis Cup team—Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Monfils, Julien Benneteau, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon—are Swiss residents. So in effect this was less a match between nations than between Swiss cantons. Actually, some wags observed that Federer didn’t appear to be playing for Switzerland at all, but rather for Nike. He was the only player whose nationality wasn’t stenciled on the back of his shirt. Contractual obligations once again appear to have trumped tradition.
But apart from that and the blowout against Monfils, Roger came through the tie in fine form, and his victory in doubles with Wawrinka raised an interesting question. Writer Gianni Clerici wrote that doubles matches at the ATP World Tour Finals were something of an afterthought, and he pointed out in La Republica that none of the specialists had a singles ranking that would raise them above obscure mediocrity. Boundlessly energetic and entertaining as the Bryan brothers are, one has to wonder how they would fare against top players, should the stars ever deign to play doubles the way that John Newcombe and Tony Roche, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith, McEnroe and Connors, once did.
But as the fellows in the top 10 endlessly repeat, the season is already too long and arduous. They have to conserve their strength, and in the next six weeks, free from tournament obligations, they’ll kick back and…no, not rest, not recuperate, they’ll go off and play exhibition matches. Thus the men’s circuit moves on, a snake endlessly eating its own tail.
Michael Mewshaw is the author of 20 books, among them Short Circuit, now available as an e-book.