French tactical folly paves way for maiden Swiss Davis Cup title

24 Nov

Swiss Davis Cup

Switzerland won its first Davis Cup title on Sunday, beating nine-time champion France on the latter’s home turf (or clay, as it were) in Lille. The Balke Bros, who have long supported Swiss stars Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka, were thrilled to see the country – better known for its diplomatic neutrality, secretive banking laws, pocket knives, and chocolate – soar to victory. But as Federer clinched the match with a straight-set win over Richard Gasquet, we couldn’t help but feel that French captain Arnaud Clement committed one, and potentially two, critical “own goals” that eased the Swiss path to victory.

To understand Clement’s first tactical mistake, one needs to understand the structure of Davis Cup matches, or “ties.” Ties consist of five matches, four of them singles, one of them doubles, and each counting for one point. There are a total of five points to be had, and the team that wins at least three points captures the tie as a whole. The ties run for three days. On the first day, always a Friday, two singles matches take place; doubles runs on Saturday; and then the final two singles matches come on Sunday.

Captains (that is, coaches) usually select their two top-ranked players for singles, and their best doubles combination for doubles. The doubles team is not always, or even often, merely a combination of the country’s best singles players. Doubles is a very different game from singles, and some who thrive in the former don’t do well in the latter, and vice versa. For example, the United States has almost invariably tapped the world’s best doubles team, Mike and Bob Bryan, for its Davis Cup ties for more than a decade, with great effect: The duo has almost always won. But neither of the “Bryan Bros” plays singles on the tour. A solid singles player does not a doubles star make, and this reality usually factors into Davis Cup captains’ thinking when they make line-up selections. Understanding this helps understand Clement’s first tactical miscue.

Tactical folly 1: Playing Gasquet instead of Roger-Vasselin in doubles

It all started in Saturday’s doubles. Actually, it started before that, when Clement announced the French line-up he would employ in Lille. Notably missing from that line-up was Edouard Roger-Vasselin, whom, along with compatriot Julien Benneteau, forms the world’s third-best doubles team. The duo scored a major title victory at this year’s French Open and lost in the semi-finals two weeks ago at the ATP World Tour final, which is the fifth biggest doubles tournament of the year, trailing only the grand slams. Despite this, instead of selecting Roger-Vasselin to play doubles with Benneteau, Clement tapped Richard Gasquet, a perennially top-15 singles player, but someone who has very little doubles experience, let alone success, of which to speak.

Clement’s move was puzzling. Not only are Roger-Vasselin and Benneteau an elite doubles team, they were hot, coming off their solid finish at the aforementioned ATP World Tour Final. Gasquet, for his part, hadn’t played much doubles at all in 2014, nor had he played competitive singles since October’s Paris Masters Series event, where he did poorly. Gasquet was cold. When it came time to choose a line-up, there was little if any reason for Clement to choose Gasquet over Roger-Vasselin for the doubles match. But pick him he did.

To be fair, there are a couple of factors that could make Clement’s decision seem logical. One could argue, for instance, that Clement tapped Gasquet to give himself the option of substituting Gasquet into the singles matches, an option Clement ultimately exercised (more on which later). But this logic doesn’t make sense, since Gasquet’s ranking had, heading into the tie, dipped to 26, which was actually one spot worse than Benneteau’s, which had risen to a career-high 25 coming into the contest. That means Clement could have picked Roger-Vasselin for doubles with Benneteau and then, if need be, drawn on Benneteau for singles without suffering any drop in quality relative to Gasquet. Apparently, this logic was either not compelling or not apparent to the French captain.

A second reason why Clement might have tapped Gasquet for doubles is because he expected the Swiss to use their side’s third- and fourth-best players, Marco Chiudinelli and Michael Lammer, for their own doubles team, instead of world number two Federer and world number four Wawrinka. Fed and Wawrinka, in addition to being elite singles players, have historically played well together as a doubles team in Davis Cup ties, and actually captured gold for Switzerland in doubles at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Chiudinelli and Lammer, by contrast, came into the tie ranked a dismal 212 and 508, respectively, in singles, and 206 and 528, respectively, in doubles. It’s possible Clement thought that a squad consisting even of the doubles-inexperienced Gasquet and Benneteau could easily handle the lowly ranked Chiudinelli and Lammer, whom he expected to play doubles for Switzerland, particularly in light of the back injury Federer suffered against Wawrinka in their semi-final match at the ATP World Tour Final the previous weekend.

But again, this logic doesn’t pass muster. The doubles match is always crucial in Davis Cup ties. If a team wins their two singles matches on the opening day, Saturday’s doubles match gives them a chance to win the tie in a clean sweep. If they lose both singles matches, by contrast, the dubs provides a chance to stay alive and build momentum heading into the final day. If the tie enters Saturday level at one match apiece, capturing the doubles points gives teams a crucial 2-1 edge heading into Sunday, reducing the pressure on singles players since they only have to win one of two matches to prevail in the overall contest.

Clement had to have known that his team would be facing this type of situation on Saturday. There was no way the doubles match would not be critical, for the reasons mentioned above. Moreover, given the specific circumstances of this tie, the doubles proved particularly key. On the opening day of singles, Wawrinka took care of business against French number one Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, winning the tie’s opening match in four sets. Then, a hobbled Federer dropped a one-sided, three-set match to Gael Monfils, pulling the tie level at 1-1 heading into doubles. After Friday’s action, the Swiss had to answer an important question: Did Fed have a higher chance of winning a singles match or a doubles match?

There was every reason to believe they would decide the latter. First and foremost, doubles is less physically taxing then singles. Secondly, because of Clement’s selection of Gasquet, as opposed to Roger-Vasselin, for the French doubles side, the Swiss must have felt that pairing Federer and Wawrinka would give them a good chance of taking a 2-1 lead heading into Sunday’s singles. Having that 2-1 lead would allow the Swiss to win the title even if Federer lost to Tsonga, as Wawrinka, who’s been playing some of the best tennis of his career, would only have to have beaten Monfils to claim the tie.

On the other hand, putting in Chiudinelli and Lammer would likely have cost Switzerland the doubles match, putting extreme pressure on both Fed and Wawrinka to win their singles matches. Tactically sound coaches would not put their players needlessly in that position. Predictably, Swiss captain Severin Luthi did not, opting instead to send Fed and Wawrinka out there to take care of business against Benneteau and Gasquet. And, take care of business they did, scoring a routine, straight-set win that was never in doubt. Clement failed to anticipate the constellation of factors outlined above. In doing so, he scored a tactical own goal that helped cost France the title.

Tactical folly 2: Playing Gasquet instead of Tsonga in reverse singles

The second tactical miscue that Clement made is less clear-cut than the first. With his French side trailing the Swiss 2-1 heading into Sunday’s “reverse singles” (which simply means taking the singles matches on Friday and swapping opponents), Clement elected to play Gasquet, instead of Tsonga, against Federer. Viscerally, this move made no sense. At 12 in the world, Tsonga was ranked 14 spots better than Gasquet, and had had far greater success against the Swiss historically, including beating him in straight sets in their most recent encounter in the final of this year’s Masters Series Toronto, and drubbing him in straight sets in the quarter-finals of last year’s French Open. This, combined with the fact that Gasquet has a miserable, 2-13 life-time record against Federer made Tsonga the clear pick, on paper, to face off against the Swiss.

The word coming out, at least in some press, after Fed trounced Gasquet 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 was that Tsonga had suffered an elbow injury that precluded him from playing. However, there are at least three reasons to question the notion that Tsonga was too injured to play against Federer.

First, Clement wouldn’t confirm this was the case. Curiously, not all, or even most, of the press pointed to Tsonga’s elbow issue as the reason why Clement benched him for Gasquet (see here for another story that suggests the move was discretionary).

Second, Tsonga showed no signs of injury on Friday during his loss to Wawrinka. Sure, the Swiss beat him convincingly, but, having gone four sets, the match was by no means a blow-out. The Frenchman didn’t play doubles on Saturday, which means it is likely that the only tennis action he saw between his loss against Wawrinka and the time he was scheduled to play against Federer was a light practice hit on Saturday. It is extremely unusual – though not unprecedented (here and here) – for a player to injure him or herself during a light practice or in an off-court event so badly that it precludes them from playing in a match with enormous stakes.

Which leads to the third reason to doubt that Tsonga was too injured to play: the stakes! The final of the Davis Cup is a big deal. Bringing glory to your nation represents one of the greatest achievements a tennis player can secure, which is why Federer, the most well-decorated male grand slam champion in history, was still so committed to winning this title, and played through a back injury to get the job done.

I’ve criticized Tsonga a lot throughout his career for wasting talent and opting to play the flashy, high stakes tennis that makes highlight reels, instead of the boring, percentage tennis that wins major championships. But, within this criticism, there is a reality that leads one to suspect Tsonga wanted to play against Federer: his flare for the dramatic, hunger for the big moment, and thirst for pressure on the big stage. These things, more than any others, have driven Tsonga throughout his career, often to the detriment of capturing big titles and rising to the top of the rankings. But they have never led him to shy away from pressure moments. So, it strikes me as extremely unlikely that he would let what was probably a relatively minor elbow tweak get in the way of scoring what could have proven one of the most significant wins of his career.

This is particularly true given that Federer was reeling from back problems, which is, on the main, a more severe injury for tennis players than elbow problems. Fed’s physical vulnerability would likely have left Tsonga convinced that he could win the match, despite his own physical ailment. To the extent that Clement reached a different conclusion, and benched Tsonga because of it, it represents another astonishing tactical blunder, one that, like the doubles miscue, may have lost France the match. To the extent that it is not true, and Tsonga asked to be benched because of the injury, it would represent only the latest example of the astonishingly talented Frenchman failing to rise up to meet his full tennis potential. And to the extent that this is a really serious elbow injury that extends into, and keeps Tsonga hobbled during, 2015, then we tip our cap to both him and Clement and apologize (although, with Clement, he’d still be responsible for the tactical blunder in doubles).

So, what does it all mean?

If Clement is guilty of the tactical follies with which we have charged him, then it seems clear that France should hire a new Davis Cup coach. In our opinion, the choice to replace him is equally clear: Amelie Mauresmo. Mauresmo is a former world number one player and two-time major championship winner, who coached since-retired Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli to a Wimbledon title in 2013 and, earlier this year, crossed gender lines to become the first woman to coach a top-ranked male player, in the process leading Scot Andy Murray to a resurgent second half of 2014, in which he captured three titles and leapt from double digits to a year-end number six ranking. And while certain corners of the tennis world seem to believe that women cannot successfully coach men at the professional level, we at Balke Bros know that this is rubbish. So, as they scratch their heads and wonder what happened to their title hopes in 2014, French tennis federation leaders would be wise to bring on Mauresmo for the 2015 campaign.

As for Clement, well, he’s still got those awesome shades to fall back on.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: