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Swiss tennis stands at the crossroads


By Thomas Stephens



Swiss player Michael Lammer walks off the court in defeat ()

Swiss player Michael Lammer walks off the court in defeat

Following Switzerland’s 5-0 thrashing by Kazakhstan at the weekend, the president of the Swiss Tennis Association wants answers from Roger Federer.

The loss meant Switzerland were relegated from the World Group – the 16 best teams in the world – to the zonal group Europe/Africa. The draw to see who they will have to beat in 2011 to return to the top tier will be held on Wednesday.

“We need to have an answer [from Federer] – is he going to be part of the team or not?” René Stammbach, president of Swiss Tennis since 2006, told swissinfo.ch. “Any answer will be respected and accepted – but we want answers.”

The world number three pulled out of the Davis Cup encounter, which was held in Astana a week after his semifinal defeat at the US Open.

Stammbach blamed the 5-0 loss on a tired Stanislas Wawrinka – who had just reached the quarterfinals of a grand slam event for the first time – and a strong Kazakh team.

However, while this Swiss disparity between individual success and team failure is nothing new – even with Federer they dropped out of the World Group in 2007 – Stammbach has ordered team captain Severin Lüthi to talk to Federer and find out where he stands.

“At the end of the day it’s always going to be his decision – we don’t have a contract with him. We’re just depending on his good will. If he wants to defend the colours of the country, that’s up to him,” he said.

“It’s not that we absolutely want to force him to say ‘yes’. We can’t expect that from him. But we would like to know what the goal is in his head – is it still to reach the semifinals or finals of the World Group or even win it?”

If that were the case, Stammbach said they would do everything to help achieve it.

“But if the goal has changed – and his actions lead me to believe it has – then I think we also have to readjust the goal. We cannot go on travelling with 17 people to a zonal group match. It’s not in proportion to the goal. That’s what we need to clarify,” Stammbach said.

So has Federer played his last Davis Cup match? “Possibly yes, hopefully no.”

Unfulfilled potential

The irritating thing for Swiss fans is that in theory Switzerland could win the Davis Cup. A country only needs two world-class players who want to play for their country, and in Federer and Wawrinka, Switzerland has two Olympic gold medallists.

Bearing in mind that an athlete like Federer comes along once a century, there’s a feeling that the past few years have been wasted – Switzerland hasn’t fulfilled its potential.

“I completely agree,” Stammbach said. “One reason is that Federer now has a family and he obviously wants to spend more time with them, which is absolutely understandable. And he’s still concentrating on his ATP career – you have to just accept that.”

The Swiss Tennis president personally thinks that players who benefit from the association’s support when they are young owe it to the association to play in the Davis Cup tournament when they are older.

“When I was elected four years ago, I introduced new contracts to everyone in the squad – there are about 40 people we support directly either by money or practice facilities, coaches and so on. If they don’t play [Davis Cup], they have to repay all the costs we have invested in them, which is about SFr120,000 ($119,500) per person per year.”

Disappointment

Since 2006 Federer has played in three out of nine Davis Cup matches. Is Stammbach disappointed by that?

“If the question is isolated, the answer is yes. If you look at it in a broader context, then I am still disappointed but it is understandable. Don’t forget what he has done for tennis in general and tennis in Switzerland in particular – how can you be angry with a guy like that? No one else has done so much for tennis.”

He points out however that for Swiss Tennis the Davis Cup is just “one part of a mosaic”.

“Our main aim is to make sure that more people are playing tennis in Switzerland. We have 200,000 members – we want to get 250,000-300,000 in the next five years. That’s our ambition, and the Davis Cup as a window helps to achieve that goal, but there are other things that are as important as the Davis Cup.”

He also credits Federer with helping increase the number of junior licences for boys by more than ten per cent.

“That doesn’t say anything about the quality, but what we have to do now is invest money to ensure that there will be a post-Federer period – and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.

“The seeds have been planted. Now we have to be patient.”

So the future of tennis in Switzerland is bright?

“Well, with all the money in the world the British – they have Murray but they haven’t produced two top ten players like we have. Money doesn’t guarantee anything, but at least you can try.”

Swiss Davis Cup highs and lows

Switzerland’s defeat to Kazakhstan was the third time they’ve been beaten 5-0 since 1980: once in 1990 to Czechoslovakia and once in 1996 to Germany.

Highs: Switzerland’s best performance came in 1992, when they finished runner-up. Led by Marc Rosset and Jakob Hlasek, the Swiss lost 3-1 to a strong American team - made up of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and John McEnroe - in the Final.

They reached the semifinal in 2003.

The Davis Cup

The Davis Cup is the top international team event in men's tennis. In 2005, 134 nations entered the competition.

There are five "leagues", the top being the World Group of 16 nations who compete for the cup. The four-round World Group knockout competition is spread over four weekends during the year. Each tie between competing nations is held in one of the countries.

Teams, which comprise four players, are seeded based on a ranking system released by the International Tennis Federation, taking into account previous years' results.

Switzerland returned to the 2009 World Group after relegation in 2007. After coming through Europe/Africa Zone Group I, a Federer-aided Switzerland defeated Belgium 4-1 in a World Group Play-off tie.

Switzerland has never won the Davis Cup, which was won in 2008 and 2009 by Spain. It has reached the finals once, in 1992, when it lost to the United States.

By Thomas Stephens, swissinfo.ch



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