Dubai 2019: Champions to the fore as Roger Federer and Roberto Bautista Agut open campaigns
Roger Federer and Roberto Bautista Agut both got their campaigns under way in Dubai on Monday
This was the night that the former champions blew into the Centre Court of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Roger Federer was after his eighth title, Roberto Bautista Agut after his second in a row as the defending champion.
But they were not the only things to blow into these parts. The flags around the Dubai stadium stood to attention in a cool, strong wind, and it played havoc with some of tennis.
Fernando Verdasco after his win in the afternoon:
“Was super difficult. After two hours, I still didn’t know where the wind was going. My feeling was one point was going one way, the other point was going the other way. Even sometimes, it was changing during the point. Really, really difficult conditions.”
Then Karen Khachanov after his loss:
“[The loss was] a little bit of everything, conditions. All the week I was really feeling well hitting. But today was some strange shots because of wind.”
And Milos Raonic, a surprise loser on Court 1, blamed the wind for his loss of focus on the match in hand. As has been said many times before, the wind is a great leveller.
Was it enough to throw out someone as experienced in Dubai as Federer, with his 48-6 record here? Or could the classy and stylish tennis of his German friend, Philipp Kohlschreiber, force errors? He had never beaten Federer in 13 meetings, though the 35-year-old had certainly tested his famous 37-year-old opponent, taking him to three sets in other favourite Federer tournaments, Halle and Basel.
Considering Federer admitted he was finding the Dubai courts slower than in the past, and that he was without competitive tennis for almost a month, he burst from the gates in brilliant style, thumping three winners against the Kohlschreiber serve to break straight away, and held to love for 2-0.
But the German used his slice, angle and flat pace to keep up the pressure, and earned a break point as Federer twice double faulted in the fourth game: The wind at the Royal Box end was certainly the tougher to handle.
But the Swiss held, and from the other end, held to love. A modest scare in the 10th game, serving for the set, saw the former champion produce two aces at deuce—a suitably crowd pleasing end to the set, 6-4.
The heavily biased crowd shouted a different tune in the second set when Federer was broken in the second game, and Kohlschreiber held for 3-0. But the German’s lead was pegged back in the fifth game, and order appeared to be restored.
However, Kohlschreiber was not holding back. He went on the attack on his returns, now stepping in for a quick winning backhand, now dropping back to fire off a holding, spinning reply. His backhand was opening the court effectively, piercing holes as Federer came to the net, and sure enough, he broke again. A quick hold, and Kohlschreiber led 5-2.
But he had to find all his guile and touch to hold off Federer as he served for the second set. Twice he double faulted to offer up a break-back point to Federer, and would offer one more before finally serving out the set, 6-3, after a 10-minute game.
The crowd was growing louder, and cheering more than ever for Federer, determined to rouse their favourite to greater effort with a vast Mexican wave.
Now Federer served first, held, and converted his first break chance in the second game. He consolidated in style, serving out to love with an ace, and he would ace again to open another love hold, 4-1.
Kohlschreiber’s game could not withstand the onslaught, and he was broken again: Federer was left to serve out the match, 6-1, with—as if his fans could ever doubt it—a love hold sealed by an ace.
And with that, Federer moved to 49 wins in Dubai. To make a round 50, he will now have to play Verdasco—another opponent who has yet to beat the Swiss in six previous matches. Indeed, the Swiss has won 13 of the 14 sets he has played against the 35-year-old left-hander, including a straight-sets victory in their most recent meeting, also in Dubai, four years ago.
But the Spaniard is a former finalist in Dubai, and clearly likes the tournament. He was, it was reported, also looking forward to playing Federer. The Swiss furrowed his brow:
“That’s no good!” Then he smiled, and continued.
“He’s a good guy. I think he’s got one of those wonderful forehands on the tour. We’ve seen the great shot-making he has been able to produce over the course of his career… Yeah, I think he’s a good player. He can definitely peak against the top guys. I think that’s why he’s still playing, for those kind of matches, so I have to be careful.”
As for the defending champion, the quietly-spoken, super-fit Spaniard Bautista Agut, his always looked the easier contest as he took on the wild card Ramkumar Ramanathan of India, ranked 137, and playing in Dubai for the first time.
His aggressive, all-court skill kept the match lively, competitive and entertaining, and hour and 22 minutes that saw Bautista Agut edge a close first set in a long concluding game in which he had to save two break points before serving it out, 6-4.
The second set was more on-sided in the Spaniard’s favour, and two breaks took him to a 6-3 win, and with some very tidy statistics on his serving.
He has good vibes in Dubai, for the very good reason that this was the site of his first ATP500 title.
“I think this [victory] was one of the best ones. This was my first 500 event and will always have very good memories… This has been my best start of the season since I’m a tennis player, and I hope to keep that form and level, and try to finish as high as possible.”
He will next play the eqaully in-form Nikolaz Basilashvili, who trounced Khachanov, 6-4, 6-1.