Australian Open 2017: Roger Federer “couldn’t be happier” after making winning return

Roger Federer makes a winning return to action at the Australian Open, beating Jurgen Melzer of Austria 7-5, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2

Roger Federer made a winning return to action at the Australian Open Photo: Marianne Bevis

Reporting on a first-round match by Roger Federer at a Grand Slam has, over the years, become something of a rarity. After all, the Swiss has not lost an opening match at any Major in almost 14 years, and has never fallen short of the third round at this particular Major, the Australian Open, in 17 previous appearances. Since winning the first of four titles in Melbourne, indeed, Federer has only once failed to reach the semi-finals.

He has won more Grand Slam matches, 307, and more in Australia, 80, than any man in the Open era. He plays his 69th Major this week, and holds the record for most consecutive Major appearances, 65, that came to an end at the French Open last year.

And there’s the rub.

Until this year, the evergreen Federer had not only been a constant on the tour but had continued to maintain the highest level of play. He was seeded No3 in Australia 12 months ago, and No2 when he ran to the finals of his two previous Grand Slams, Wimbledon and the US Open. He had also been immune to injury, it seemed, give or take a chronic back problem that flared up from time to time.

That was before a freak knee injury after last year’s Australian Open required his first ever surgery. He would play just five more tournaments, culminating in a semi finish at Wimbledon, after which he pulled the plug on his season: Olympics, US Open, et al.

Would the now 35-year-old, with 17 Grand Slams and little left to prove really spend those long months in rehabilitation, and then work the uphill treadmill back to the kind of fitness demanded at the top of tennis?

Or would he so enjoy time with family and friends, on vacation, rubbing shoulders with the fashion and motor racing worlds, that he would decide to hang up his racket?

For by the time he returned to Melbourne this week, he was seeded outside the top 16 for the first time since 2001. That brought with it a formidable draw of Tomas Berdych in the third round, Kei Nishikori in the fourth, world No1 Andy Murray in the quarters—and all with just 18 tour matches played in the last year and none in the last six months.

But ‘the big R’ question has dogged him since the 2012 Olympics.

“In a way it doesn’t surprise me because I’ve been talking about retirement for seven years. Naturally that’s the perfect opening for people to ask the question yet again, think to themselves, ‘Why more?’ I get it. It’s fine. I’ll keep answering it!”

Long-term coach and friend Severin Luthi, talking to Tages Anzeiger last week, agreed:

“They will say again he missed the right moment [to end his career]. You know how it is: They will take the first tournament, and when he plays super, everyone will cheer, and if he isn’t so good, they will say: He should have done this or that. But we didn’t go through this whole phase only because of the Australian Open. Of course, it was a goal to be fit for this tournament, but there is still more to come, hopefully two or three more seasons.”

Luthi went on to talk about what is surely the driving force behind Federer’s formidable work ethic: His joy in playing.

“That is always fascinating to see—how good he practised in this long period, how much fun he had in the practice, how much energy he had… He is the player with the most joy of playing… But it is extremely helpful for him as it gives him a lot of energy.”

However, it is one thing to return to the big stage full of joy and optimism, and another to perform to the exacting standards that have built such a reputation.

That he opened against a qualifier should, on paper, have given Federer a decent run-in. Except that, as luck would have it, an old colleague, fellow 35-year-old and former world No8, Jurgen Melzer, was himself still on the comeback trail from shoulder surgery. With only seven main-draw matches last year, he was forced to come through qualifying, and found himself facing the man he had beaten in their last match in 2011.

Already well attuned to the fast Melbourne courts, and a big-hitting left-hander to boot, Melzer was sure to test Federer. Indeed it looked as though the Swiss had made a serious error of judgement in opting to receive.

He initially made no headway against Melzer’s swinging leftie serve, losing the first two games on the Austrian’s serve to love with numerous mistimed returns.

Come the sixth game, Federer then faced break point after fluffing a volley, and Melzer passed the Swiss at the net for a 4-2 lead.

Federer’s movement looked cautious, but his attacking game-plan had the desired effect of drawing errors, and in the next game, the Swiss broke back.

Having missed a lot of first serves in the early stages, Federer now upped his level, and held for 4-4 with a 71-second hold to love on a second serve ace. Much to the partisan crowd’s delight, Federer also broke again with a net-charging volley and a running forehand winner. Four points later, he took the set with his 12th in a row, 7-5.

Three minutes into the second set, and Federer extended his run to 16 points with a love break, but Melzer recalibrated and began to pressure Federer. The Austrian upped the aggression in the sixth game, unleashing deep and pacey forehands to break and level the score, 3-3, and consolidated with his second love hold of the set. And he was not done.

Some inspired returning to twice pass Federer at the net brought a second break, 5-3, and he continued to take the ball on the rise to serve out the set, 6-3.

The intensity from both men, with early and aggressive ball striking, made for some fine tennis as they fought for dominance in the third set. But suddenly, a change of pace—two chipped returns to Melzer’s feet—and Federer had the break. A 12th ace and he led 5-2, and he sealed a fast and furious 28-minute set with another break, 6-2.

Federer opened the fourth set with three aces in a 61-second love hold, and in the fourth game, broke Melzer with an acute backhand volley and a forehand winner. One last break, and Federer had the win, 6-2—but Melzer’s grin was almost as broad as Federer’s as they exchanged a warm embrace at the net. Both pleased not only with their standard of play but to be back on court.

Federer afterwards admitted that he was a bit thrown by his early errors:

“I thought my serve was on and off in the beginning, which surprised me a little bit because in practice it’s been going pretty well. I was feeling nervous once the match actually started. I felt fine, then I hit four frames in a row!”

He also admitted that he had perhaps been concentrating too hard on every point until “I realised it was just consuming me.” So he made himself relax: “I think that then worked much better.”

But his smile looked set to stay until bedtime:

“Any match is a good match: even if I’d lost today, would have been good cos I’m back on the court. It’s nice to be playing normal tennis again, couldn’t be happier that I am here now. Was a long road… but I’m in the draw, which is a beautiful thing. Hope I can stick around for a little bit.”

To do that, he will have to beat another qualifier, this one 15 years younger than he is. Noah Rubin, like Federer a Wimbledon junior champion, beat fellow American Bjorn Fratangelo 6-7(4), 7-5, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2.

Former champion Wawrinka came through a stern five-setter, and a break down in the decider, against Martin Klizan, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 in. Nishikori also survived a five-set scare against Andrey Kuznetsov, 5-7, 6-1, 6-4, 6-7, 6-2, as did Marin Cilic, who beat Jerzy Janowicz, 4-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.

However, No16 seed Lucas Pouille, the scheduled fourth-round opponent for Murray, lost to Alexander Bublik, 6-0, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

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