Brisbane heaves sigh of relief as Roger Federer embarks on title defence

Roger Federer got his 2016 campaign off to a winning start by reaching the Brisbane International quarter-finals

Marianne Bevis
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Just how uneasily the organisers and sponsors of the Brisbane International—the biggest tennis event during the first week of the 2016 season—had slept in their beds in recent nights, we may never know.

But come Thursday night, there were surely some huge sighs of relief around the impressive Pat Rafter Arena in this beautiful Australian city.

The tournament’s top three seeds in the women’s draw, ranked numbers two, three and four in the world, had not completed a match between them: Simona Halep and Maria Sharapova withdrew injured before their opening matches, Garbine Muguruza after losing the first set.

So when rumours began to circulate about the health of the star attraction in the men’s draw, top seed Roger Federer, Twitter was alive with concern.

This is Federer’s third consecutive year at the Brisbane tournament, and he has made no secret of how much he and his family enjoy the sun-and-sea-kissed city on Queensland’s golden coast. And it has shown in his tennis—runner-up in 2014 and champion last year.

As always, he was straight into PR mode after flying in overnight from Dubai, and on Saturday, videos and interviews proliferated, now on river boat, now at a dance exhibition, then some practice, and finally suited and booted with Sharapova for A Summer Night in city hall.

He was on duty again come Sunday for Kids Day: on court with fellow players, youngsters and a giant racket, and then around town with two pairs of twins and two buggies. And then… everything went quiet.

Trips and practices cancelled, and his opening match was delayed until the last possible slot on Thursday night. The tournament’s website resorted to confirming that he would play—and sure enough, he arrived right on cue with, as he afterwards explained, his head flooded with memories of his last match here a year ago, his 1,000th.

He went on to explain to the AAP for the tournament’s website why he had not been around: a flu-like illness picked up from his family.

“I was the last guy to get it, so I knew what I was getting into when I was not feeling well.”

As a result, he had asked that his second-round match—the top four seeds have a bye in the first—be put off until Thursday.

“Started to feel a little bit better. That’s why I came out on Wednesday for a hit, just to see how things are. The way I started to feel late last night and today, with the speed of the court, I felt like I’m happy to give it a go.”

As it happens, he did a little more than give it a go: He took well under an hour to beat qualifier Tobias Kamke, a man he had played only once before when beating him in straight sets at the French Open.

It looked as though Federer had determined to keep this short and sweet, and he played aggressively from the off to break in the third game, again in the fifth, and serve it out in 25 minutes, 6-2.

He was, in truth, helped not a little by Kamke, who made enough errors to make Federer look as though he was in second gear. But the German found better range and cleaner striking in the second set, and that forced the Federer error rate up, though not enough to prevent the Swiss breaking in the third game.

Federer faced his only break point in the next game, but saved it, and broke Kamke for 4-1. Another hold and a break, and the match was done and dusted, 6-1, and Federer had maintained another of his multiple long-standing runs. Not since the very first match of his very first season, in July of 1998, has the Swiss lost his first match of the year.

There were a few coughs and sniffles, and a little shortness of breath for the on-court interview, but these appeared only to focus his tactical accuracy. The ball pinged from the centre of his racket to make 18 winners in just 86 points, and he made 15 points out of 20 net plays.

Federer was pleased with his night’s work: “Didn’t expect myself to play so well.” However, if he had any concern ahead of his next match against Grigor Dimitrov, who has beaten both Gilles Simon and Viktor Troicki in three sets, it was that he may not be as match-honed as his younger opponent.

“It’s a tough draw to have Grigor in the second match… He’s had a couple of tough matches, against Simon and Troicki, but it’s a bit early in the year to play him. If I can play like tonight, I hope I can do well. It’s been a rocky couple of days… I have been hitting the ball well, so I am where I want to be. But Grigor’s extremely match tough.”

Further down the road, Federer could also meet the same man in the final that he beat last year, Milos Raonic, and that poses an interesting face-off. During the off-season, Federer took on Raonic’s former coach, Ivan Ljubicic. The Swiss explained:

“I’ve had a great team around me since many, many years, I feel like it’s nice to have somebody else’s voice. And I always thought a lot of Ivan—we played many times and I was happy he was available at the end of the year. We are both very excited: This is our first win together.”

Federer also talked of what he wanted, and got, for Christmas.

“It’s most important that the family is all together, then it doesn’t matter where we are in the world as long as we spend it together. The gifts, I don’t need any—I get enough stuff. All I need is support and love, and I love spending time with my family and my friends.”

Judging from the reception he has got at every turn in Brisbane, and the communal concern when he failed to appear as often as expected, he will not want for love or support for as long as he plays in this friendly city.

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