Wednesday, December 3, 2014
In Defense of Arnaud Clément
For a few days following the French's devastating (at least from their perspective) defeat at the hands of the Swiss team in the finals of the Davis Cup campaign, Arnaud Clément, the captain of the French team, experienced what most losing Davis Cup captains go through in such periods. He suffered the wrath of retrospectively enlightened critics who seem to know better, the angry fans who are looking for a victim to blame, and anyone (and everyone) who claims that they would have known what to do, had they been in his shoes.
While the irresistible art of "armchairing" gripped those who believed — in the aftermath, of course — that Clément made the wrong decisions, anyone with a rational approach to the ins and outs of the developments leading up to, and through, the final weekend, should be able to see that his choices were not the wrong at the time that he had to make them.
The first challenge that faced Clément was to nominate four players that were to represent the French team against the Swiss. He had an accomplished doubles team composed of Julien Benneteau and Édouard Roger-Vasselin, the winners of the 2014 Roland Garros title. Had he picked them, he would have had to leave out two of the following players out of the team: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon, Gaël Monfils, and Richard Gasquet. Furthermore, his head would have been hanging at the Place de la Concorde even before the weekend was over, had one of the two singles players that he picked got injured on Friday, and was substituted by one of the doubles players on Sunday, leading to an almost-guaranteed loss.
He did what any reasonable coach would do. Unless you have an extraordinary doubles team, such as the Bryan brothers of the USA, you go with your strong singles players who could collect four out of the five points that you need to win the tie, and hope that two of them can combine to provide a solid doubles effort.
Out of the four strong singles players mentioned above, two of them could also play doubles: Gasquet and Tsonga. In fact, they won a crucial doubles match against a formidable Thomas Berdych/Radek Stepanek in Davis Cup when they played the Czech team, and did reach the quarterfinals of the Toronto Masters 1000 having beaten a respectable Laender Paes/Stepanek team, only to withdraw in the quarterfinals. In contrast, Simon and Monfils are singles players. Clément wanted one doubles specialist on the team and he took Benneteau, a sensible choice. It is also reasonable that he picked the two singles players that could also play doubles, and chose only one out of the two other players who could play singles. Calm down, Simon fans (and I happen to be one myself), but on clay, Clément's choice to pick Monfils over your guy was completely understandable and justified.
Friday ended with a 1-1 tie, and displayed a version of Roger Federer that represented a level situated somewhere between "terrible" and "mediocre" compared to his real one. None of the after-the-fact armchair experts could have predicted that Federer's level would rise in the following 48 hours faster than the Enterprise accelerated from ¼ impulse drive to Warp Speed nine. Most believed that Tsonga and Gasquet would triumph over Wawrinka and Federer, and that is, if Federer played doubles in his limited condition.
However, on Friday two things happened that were completely outside the control of either captain. First, Tsonga injured his wrist, which caused him to withdraw, by his own request, from the doubles. Second, Federer played through his match against Monfils with no pain in his back, and although he got crushed by the Frenchman, he was unusually upbeat about the rest of the weekend. Clément once again made the only reasonable decision: replace Tsonga with Benneteau, and thus, put his two best doubles players on the court.
Gasquet and Benneteau did not play bad, but Wawrinka and Federer played the kind of sensational doubles that they have not played since their run to the gold metal back in 2008 Olympic Games. Three sets later, Switzerland took a 2-1 lead in the tie, and everything went from bad to worst on Sunday when Federer put up one of his better clay-court performances in the last few years, running Gasquet around and finishing the points with remarkable shot-making skills.
Just like that, the Swiss won the Davis Cup, and the Statlers and Waldorfs of the world came out in numbers, ready to guillotine Clément. Yet, once again, Clément's choices were not only the most reasonable ones to make, but as seen above, the only ones he could make in certain cases. It was one of the most unfortunate weekends for a Davis Cup captain that I have ever witnessed, because it contained every twist needed to transform it into the "festival of blame" that followed the next few days in the French tennis circles.
Unfortunately for Clément, if someone wanted to write a script to make him look bad at the end of the day, they could not have done a better job. First, the controversy surrounding the Swiss team, involving the Wawrinka/Mirka malaise on the preceding weekend in London, followed by the unexpected injury of Federer that caused him to withdraw from the finals against Novak Djokovic, made the Swiss team look beatable and demoralized, thus giving the impression that the French had the psychological upper hand.
Second, the fact that the French had two weeks of preparation on clay, versus the less-than-a-week preparation time for the Swiss, not to mention that Federer had a total of one hour and 20 minutes of total practice time before Friday's first match, added to the impression that the French had all the necessary elements tilted to their advantage.
Last, the aura of having a team composed of Monfils, Tsonga, and Gasquet, that has never lost at home, firmly put the French in the favorite category in the perceptions of many, although reality was the opposite, at least on paper. These factors combined to create a firm belief by the French that losing to Switzerland on that particular weekend in Lille would be considered nothing less than a debacle. Clément ended up in the position of a captain who would either be doing only what was expected had France won, or face the prospect of being profiled as a failure in the case of a loss. Unfortunately for him, the latter took place.
Fortunately for him, however, the French Tennis Federation recently consulted the players, and they stood tall behind Clément, ensuring that he remains at least one more year as their captain. One day before that, Yannick Noah expressed his disappointment over the loss and explicitly verbalized his interest to become the captain if given the opportunity. I am a big fan of Yannick Noah, and he has already proven to be an astute Davis Cup captain in the past (remember 1991 and his decision to play Henri Leconte in singles). Yet, I can't help but agree with the players in Clément's case and disagree with the armchair crew, who has the luxury to speak in retrospect, unlike the captain.
Clément did carry them to the finals and the French need to understand that for one weekend in November, they faced a Swiss team that had superior skills and better level of quality in their tennis than they did. Donned with the number two and four players in the world, and one of the most underrated coaches in tennis (Severin Lüthi), the Swiss lived up to their potential under very difficult circumstances.
Considering Wawrinka's form and Federer's quick recovery, followed by his excellent level of play on Saturday and Sunday, I am not sure if Clément would have coached his team to victory, even under the best of circumstances. Davis Cup captains sometimes do commit mistakes and fail, and even deserve to be fired in extreme circumstances. But the loss against Switzerland two weekends ago was not one of those cases. Clément should rightfully remain in his position and deservedly get another chance to lead his team in 2015.