How can we possibly compare Roger to Donald – despite the former being more lovely and temperate? Let HL count a few ways and with all apologies to W. Shakespeare, E.B. Browning and K. Cobain.
Both men to date have been very successful in pursuit of their apparent goals. Federer to be considered GOAT, in support of his current and future commercial enterprises, and Trump the WOAT for the benefit of his business interests.
Both have a core constituency that supports them no matter how they comport themselves. Fed’s base tells you he’s gracious in defeat and respectful of opponents and umpires during his still rare losses. But tennis “users” recognize how reliable Federer is at signaling imminent defeat by attacking umpires for merely doing their jobs (the terminology of abuse and addiction now banned).
Leaving aside Federer’s long history of subtle opponent denigration, F-bombs, “bullshits” and racquet and ball “abuse” – the ATP, WTA and ITF still permit that word – the concluding weeks of the 2019 season included a few vintage moments. While losing to Sascha Zverev in Shanghai, Federer hotly disputed a point penalty assessed for angrily hitting a ball into the upper stands and he tongue-lashed the umpire for his tardy announcement of “new balls.” A few weeks later, while being eliminated from the ATP finals by Stefanos Tsitsipas, Federer went after the umpire for merely confirming a linesperson’s “out” call of a Federer first serve. But chronicling Federer’s gracious when winning style is a pursuit trivial compared with his recent assault on the Davis Cup, one of the pillars of tennis.
The Davis Cup, inaugurated by Dwight Davis in 1900, was for roughly 75 of those 120 years the pinnacle of the men’s game. Numerous players expatriated and were bribed to take new citizenship, or adopt secondary citizenship as primary, to play on the Davis Cup team of a new country. The most infamous case was Peruvian Alex Olmedo, almost singlehandedly winning the Cup for the U.S. in 1958.
The reason the Roland Garros men’s trophy is named the Coupe des Mousquetaires is because the French Davis Cup team of René Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon won the cup for six successive years (1927-1932) each time defeating the previously dominant U.S. team headed by Bill Tilden and Ellsworth Vines.
When “open” tournaments were established beginning in 1968, with pros allowed to contest formerly all amateur tournaments like all four “grand slams”, the professional sport blossomed. The greatly increased number of open tournaments began to push the very time-intensive Davis Cup from its top spot. With 135 nations competing, various rounds of elimination and relegation became difficult to fit into the crowded schedule.
But Davis Cup remained the premiere team event and Davis Cup “ties” continued to be national extravaganzas, providing a patriotic team counterpoint to the very individualistic pro tournament dynamic. The host nation patriotism at certain Davis Cup ties occasionally turned xenophobic, as in the 1987 U.S./Paraguay tie in Asuncion. But like soccer riots, these incidents actually increased the visibility and popularity of the sport.
Into that team tennis event world came Federer with his Laver Cup in 2017. Though named after “Rocket Rod”, it is very much a production of and partly owned by Federer and his Team8 management company. It pits a team of male European tennis stars against top pros from the rest of the world in rough emulation of golf’s Ryder Cup.
In the already overcrowded tennis calendar there was no room for both team competitions, let alone a third called the ATP Cup, that will debut next month. Federer knew that the Laver Cup would further weaken Davis and it did, forcing the sale of hosting rights and a complete revamp of the format. The competition was reconfigured into a one-week annual shootout among 16 to 24 teams from top tennis tier nations, in rough emulation of soccer’s World Cup.
Under that format the first revamped Davis Cup was held in Madrid from November 18 to 24, 2019. While holding its breath, the tennis world consensus was that the new format was likely to fail and the Davis Cup all but breathe its last.
To help that along, Federer not only did not play for what would have been a very strong Swiss team, co-anchored by Stan Wawrinka, but Federer scheduled five exhibition matches in Latin-America to coincide with the Cup. The last, a match in Mexico City billed as the “Greatest Match” was held the day of the Davis Cup final round between Canada and Spain. The Federer exhibition attracted a record live crowd and was telecast in the U.S. by ESPN. There was no U.S. telecast of the Davis Cup, that included two higher ranked players named Nadal and Djokovic nor of any matches played by the U.S. Davis Cup team. Such is the power of the World No. 3 player.
Devaluing and possibly killing the Davis Cup would have additional benefit to Federer, beyond increasing the value of his monetary stake in Laver Cup. Davis Cup is an area where Federer’s claim to GOAThood is significantly challenged. His record is good and during his 20 years Switzerland has won 1 cup despite having two perennial top 10 players. The year Switzerland won, Federer lost one of his two singles matches but was bailed out by Wawrinka. Stan also bailed out Federer in another relatively weak part of his resume, the Olympics. There Federer has no singles Gold Medal but a doubles one with Wawrinka. In contrast one GOAT rival, Nadal, has spearheaded 5 Davis Cup championships for Spain, with a 29-1 record in singles. He also has Olympic Gold Medals in both singles and doubles. Nadal’s fifth Davis cup triumph with the Spanish team occurred last month with him winning all 8 matches played (5 singles and 3 doubles). The effort was so spectacular and dramatic that it certainly bought the Davis Cup another few years and possibly a real future – despite Federer’s best and diligent efforts.