Doha 2021: Roger Federer beats Dan Evans in thriller to win first match in over 13 months
Three-time Doha champ Federer next plays Basilashvili; Thiem faces Bautista Agut
It is a little over 400 days since Roger Federer played his last tournament, and it proved to be a significant one. At the 2020 Australian Open, he three times had to fight back from a deficit to reach the semis, where he lost to eventual champion Novak Djokovic.
It is a little under 400 days since he played his last match, which also proved to be a significant one. On 7 February 2020, Federer and his friend Rafael Nadal played in Cape Town, the sixth ‘Match for Africa’ and the first in his mother’s homeland of South Africa. It raised $3.5million, and was a hugely emotional occasion.
He already knew his knee needed attention, so took the decision quickly with the aim of being ready to play Wimbledon five months later: “That’s why I then all of a sudden said, OK, let’s do it very quickly here so I have the time to get ready.”
In the event, the plan was an optimistic one, and perhaps his experience following the operation on his left knee in 2016 should have prepared him. Then, he returned on clay and grass, but was forced to retreat after Wimbledon for the rest of the year.
This time, the rehab hit a bump and, in the event, the grass swing never happened due to Covid-19. He needed more surgery, and so now, caution is the watchword, along with trying to dampen down expectations of a victorious return to his top level after those 400 days away.
As he put it, “All these unanswered questions, I need to give myself those answers… is the knee going to hold up? As of now, I’m not sure.
“But honestly, if I can complete a match, several matches, what I know is, I will be happy leaving the court because I know I played a tournament again. Expectations are really low, but I hope I can surprise myself and maybe others.”
What he may not have anticipated when he signed up for his return in Doha was just what a quality line-up he would face—seven of the seeds in the top 20, three in the top eight. Not since 2018 had there been a comparable field of six top-20 players, and Nos1 and 2, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, would contest the title.
And what were the chances that the man he had played the most over the last few weeks would be drawn against him in the very first match?
Daniel Evans came to Doha after a fortnight’s training block with Federer in Dubai, and was then his first practice partner at the Khalifa Tennis Complex. And it is not the first time the two have worked together. In 2019, Evans went to train with Federer in Switzerland, and several times they practised together at Wimbledon three months later.
In competition, they had met only three times, all at Majors, and most recently at the US Open 18 months ago. Evans was yet to win a set, though their Australian Open bout in 2019 was a close one.
But a lot of water has gone under the bridge in the intervening period. Not only had Federer been absent for almost 14 months, but Evans had risen from being unranked in April 2018, to becoming the top-ranked Briton in October 2019, to reaching a career-high No26 this February after winning his first title at the Murray River Open in Melbourne.
And while there would be few secrets about each other’s game, Evans probably knew better than most at what level Federer was for this first foray back in competition.
Even so, Evans was keen to hide his light under a bushel. Asked if it helped him that he had become familiar with Federer’s game and form, he said:
“I think it’s tougher for me by a long stretch… It has been nice to see his game. Obviously, it does help I have been able to see it, but it’s still going to be a difficult task.
“You know, he looked fit when I practised with him. If he’s fully fit, it’s definitely going to be tough. As well, I should enjoy the occasion…”
So long had Federer been away that there were new pandemic protocols he had not yet experienced: Yes, he had to get his own towel from a court-side box rather than depending on the ball-kids. He even needed to check the serve time-clock: yes, still 25 seconds.
Did he remember the windy conditions that Doha can throw at the players? He was soon reminded of that, too, but one minute after the first ball was struck, he was a game to the good, an ace and a forehand winner on the board.
A backhand winner closed out a love hold for 2-1, and an ace for another, 3-2. However, the first break point chance came when Federer missed a few first serves, courtesy of a backhand Evans winner. But a net charge saved the day, 5-4.
The serve was regrooved for another love hold, but in fairness, Evans’ serve was also performing well, and his attacking game and angled slice tested the Federer movement. The Briton levelled with a love hold to take it to a tie-break. And there, Evans edged the advantage, 4-2, before Federer came back, 5-4. They changed ends again, this time all square at 6-6. Now it was Federer’s turn to have set point, and then another, but not until 9-8 could he convert, and in style with a backhand crosscourt pass: 7-6(8).
He allowed himself a clenched fist in what had been a high-quality 50 minutes. He then worked a break point in the opening game of the second set with another backhand winner, but two fluffed volleys, and the Briton held. Another spate of first-serve misses from Federer, and Evans earned another break chance, and the Swiss shanked—not for the first time—to give Evans the advantage, 3-1.
Federer got a break-back chance, but he was not timing the ball as well as the Briton, who drew over-hit errors and held, 4-1. Evans’ defensive play was frustrating the attack of Federer, and he was making precious few errors himself. He fended off break points to hold for 5-2, and served out to love, 6-3.
There was little to choose between them in the decider, no breaks points to 3-3, but Federer’s serve was dropping below 50 percent—perhaps signs of fatigue slipping into his play. Some loose shots in the seventh game, and all at once the Swiss faced break points. He managed to hold, but it was a weary walk to the chair.
Federer saw a match-point chance in the next game, but Evans again used his speed and variety to thwart the Swiss, 5-5. But serving at 5-6, the Briton made a couple of errors, and Federer pounced to draw two more match points. A winning backhand pass did the business in style, 7-5, but after a testing and entertaining two and a half hours.
Federer confirmed that he was indeed feeling tired in the latter stages:
“I was tired, so I was more focused on being tired than trying to win the point, and I said, if I’m going to go out, it will be swinging… Dan had more energy at the end. But I’m incredibly happy with my performance. The end was nice and perhaps he helped me out a bit, but it was a pleasure to share the court with Dan, and nice to finish off with a backhand down the line.
He would not be drawn on how his knee felt after its first big test: “Important is how I feel tomorrow and the next day and for the next six months… To come back at my age is not very simple.”
But he concluded with: “I’m happy to be standing here regardless if I won or lost.”
As Federer said before the match, “I just feel like the story’s not over yet.” He now has to play Nikoloz Basilashvili, who beat wild card Malek Jaziri.
But what of the other seeds? For the No3 seed, defending Doha champion Andrey Rublev, it was a brief affair: the Russian, hot from his Rotterdam victory at the weekend, will enjoy a little more recovery time after his first opponent, Richard Gasquet, withdrew injured.
Rublev may not be the top seed, but he will be the man to beat, if his recent form is anything to go by. He set a new career-high ranking seven times in 2020, despite a 22-week ranking freeze, and led the tour with five titles and 41 match-wins. He is already 13-1 this season, his only loss coming in the Australian Open quarter-finals.
The top seed Dominic Thiem found himself in a tough opener against the 45-ranked Aslan Karatsev who made a breakout run to the semis for the Australian Open. The Russian came through qualifying and beat three big seeds before finally losing to Djokovic in Melbourne, and he started well against Thiem, nabbing the first set 7-6(5), but Thiem came back strongly to win, 6-3, 6-2, after almost two hours.
Thiem next plays No5 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, while No4 seed Denis Shapovalov beat fellow Canadian Vasek Pospisil to set a quarter-final against Taylor Fritz.