September 14, 2014

A Sign of the Times

Davis Cup always seems a little strange to me -- so often top stars skip ties due to scheduling conflicts or training needs, leaving lower-ranked players to carry the mantle for their countries, or nations with just a few athletes in the elite ranks can't fill out the rest of their roster to guarantee reliable rubber wins. But more recently the tide has shifted to recognize both the strongest players and their homelands -- either Spain or Serbia, who've claimed the year-end #1 ranking in five of the last six seasons, has made the Davis Cup final every year since 2008. And while the Czechs beat them out the last two times, it was with a team led by top ten players like Tomas Berdych and doubles specialist Radek Stepanek.

And this year, maybe more than others in recent memory, the highest-flying players of the season have successfully shown they come from places where it's not just about one star player, but a deep cadre of top-notch talent.

The French had actually been flying a bit under the radar in 2014, picking up just two titles on the year. But they've really stepped up their game in recent months -- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made his return to the top ten with a title in Toronto, while Gael Monfils, who picked up his first trophy in three years in February, very nearly defeated Roger Federer in New York, what would have been the biggest win of his career. And against the two-time defending Czech champions, even recently struggling Richard Gasquet, who couldn't defend semifinal points from his 2013 U.S. Open run, stepped up to the plate. The 2010 runners-up got off to an early lead and clinched the win with a doubles victory Saturday, adding some fresh blood to the finals -- but the real test is still to come.

The Swiss may have been playing in their first Davis Cup semifinal since 2003, but with a couple of individually dominant players leading the way, it's a little surprising it took so long to get there. Roger Federer picked up his twenty-second Masters crown in Cincinnati last month and fell just short of his eighteenth Major at Wimbledon earlier in the summer. And compatriot Stan Wawrinka stormed onto the scene with his first Slam in Melbourne, climbing to a career high #3 in the world after his win. While both fell short of expectations in New York, they rallied big time to create an early 2-0 lead over a strong Italian team this weekend and, though Wawrinka fell just short of securing the tie in a nearly four-hour doubles loss, Federer pulled off an east win over world #17 Fabio Fognini, granting his team entry to its first final since 1992.

From a ranking perspective the Swiss will certainly be at an advantage in November's tie, but this could be a tougher battle than we expect -- Federer, after all, lost to Tsonga in Canada and nearly, too, to Monfils in Flushing Meadows, while Wawrinka hasn't beaten a top ten player since April. But that's just the kind of drama we've come to expect on the tennis courts this year -- the world's best players being pushed to the limit from every angle imaginable. And whoever eventually goes home with this year's Davis Cup trophy will have cemented themselves -- and their entire team -- as the true force in this sport for the season.

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