Geneva Open 2021: Roger Federer’s highly-anticipated return ended by Andujar in opener

It was only Federer’s second appearance in 15 months, his first on clay in two years, following knee surgery

Roger Federer
Roger Federer in clay-court action (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

There is no getting away from it: an awful lot has happened on the tennis stage since Roger Federer disappeared from the tour following his semi-final run at the 2020 Australian Open.

Two knee surgeries ensured his absence for 14 months, when he returned briefly in Doha to try out his recuperation and fitness. He won one match, and left the tour again following his quarter-final loss.

Of course many others also missed a huge swathe of 2020 when a global pandemic brought everything around the world to a halt. Wimbledon and the Olympics disappeared from the calendar, along with many other tournaments—and even this season, some have either been cancelled, postponed or played behind closed doors as the coronavirus continues to take its toll.

But back in Australia, Federer was ranked No3, now he is down to No8—and to put it bluntly, he is nowhere to be seen when it comes to the ATP Race, a mere 247.

He has also seen what looked like impregnable records matched or exceeded. Rafael Nadal equalled Federer’s 20 Major titles with his Roland Garros triumph. Novak Djokovic overtook the Swiss star’s tally of weeks at No1: the Serb is now up to 321 and leaving Federer’s 310 in the rear-view mirror.

There has been a new Major champion, Dominic Thiem at last year’s US Open, the first new name to appear on the roster since Marin Cilic in 2014. Meanwhile, on the Masters front, there has been a ramping up in the level from many younger players.

Since Federer won his last, his 28th, in Miami in 2019, the likes of Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Hubert Hurkacz and Alexander Zverev have notched up as many Masters titles as Nadal and Djokovic. And before Nadal won Rome this weekend, there were four straight Masters that did not even feature one of the ‘big three’ in the finals.

By the time he began his campaign in Geneva, and only three months off his 40th birthday, Federer was playing on clay for the first time since reaching semis of Roland Garros two years ago.

His plan was to get match-time in Geneva and then Roland Garros to prepare him for his declared primary targets, Wimbledon and the Olympics, but whichever way his supporters looked at it—and there was huge anticipation about the return of one of the sport’s favourite sons—a comeback to his former level after such an absence was a big ask.

In fairness, he was keen to play down his expectations. Asked about his current level, he told the media in Geneva:

“I am just concerned about where my game is at. The guys are back on Tour, and in a good rhythm: the level everyone is producing is great. Obviously, I want to achieve that again too.

“I need to play 10 matches to be able to give you a better answer. Of course there are question marks around my level, we will find a little bit more tomorrow, but in practice, things have been going well. When you come back from an injury, you’re in a different place than everyone else…. I’m excited about the comeback, that is where my focus is and not on trying to be at the same level as Rafa and Novak. That’s not why I’m playing Geneva.”

About his age and his ambitions for regaining his form, he was equally pragmatic:

“I think the moment I’m healthy or able to get matches under my belt, get used to being out on court, serving for hours, then recovering and doing the same again, that will increase my confidence and then I believe I will be part of the top tier.

“Obviously if you want to be up there, you have to play a good 50 matches a season, and when you get older it’s harder to play those 50, 80 or 100 matches like I used to play, so you’re in a completely different space.

“One thing is for sure, the generation of Tsitsipas, Zverev, [Andrey] Rublev, and Medvedev have all gotten better with more experience. Dominic won a Slam in the meantime, and Rafa and Novak are still where they are… So you would think the game has improved again, and for me, that’s going to be an extra challenge, extra hard for me to find that level, but I guess I knew from the get-go it was never going to be simple.”

The draw certainly did not help his cause, packed with clay expertise and experience from players with plenty of matches in their legs already.

The quarters could bring either the young Swiss teenager and reigning French Open junior champion, Dominic Stricker, who put out Marin Cilic, or Marton Fuscovics, ranked 44 and a former Geneva champion.

Perhaps the most dangerous in his half, though, was the 22-year-old No3 seed Casper Ruud, who had made the semis in his past three tournaments, two of which were Masters in Monte-Carlo and Madrid.

At the bottom of the draw, the No2 seed Denis Shapovalov would also be a handful. The young Canadian, who came within a whisker of beating Rafael Nadal in Rome, had two former clay Masters semis to his name. And also in this half was Fabio Fognini, a former Monte-Carlo champion who had won eight of his nine finals on clay.

His opener, though, was a first meeting with Pablo Andujar, who would certainly test Federer’s clay movement and timing. The Spaniard had four clay titles from nine clay finals to his name, and had played exclusively on the red stuff since his second-round exit at the Australian open.

It has been many years since Federer played in such a small arena, the Tennis Club de Genève, the oldest and largest tennis club in Switzerland. A mere 100 spectators were permitted, so even the few rows that fringed this modest main court were sparsely populated. It made the crack of ball on strings particularly loud and crisp, and not just from Federer’s racket.

Andujar was grooved very quickly and did not look in danger of being broken as they headed to the latter stages of the first set. Meanwhile, Federer shanked a couple of forehands, overhit more, and was not setting the world alight with his first serve.

It was, indeed, a huge forehand, pounded way long, that conceded the first break point of the set, and Federer was 4-6 down after 36 minutes, with only 40 percent of his first serves in play.

A considerably better forehand earned the Swiss a first break chance in the third game of the second set, and a net cord helped him convert. He consolidated with a love hold comprising three forehand winners and a backhand smash, 3-1. This was more like the ‘old’ Federer, and boosted home hopes that he would race to the winning line.

However, Andujar continued to serve well, and Federer struggled to get any traction on return. The Spaniard, then, held with ease to force the Swiss to serve out the set. He did so, at the second attempt, with a forehand winner.

Federer repeated the pattern in the third set, breaking and holding to love for 3-1. But Andujar continued to play well, demanding winners to beat him, and was making scant errors of his own. It earned him a break back, 4-4.

Now Federer’s level began to fade, and he seemed unable to manage the Andujar serve. He backed off to receive, not his usual aggressive stance, and perhaps caused by some fatigue in the legs. For the errors began to spray off the Swiss racket, and his first serve deserted him.

Federer would have to serve to stay in the match, and he did save two match points, but on the third, another shanked forehand ended his Geneva stay, 6-4.

Federer was afterwards frank in his assessment:

“I was expecting better from myself. I was not able to make a difference in key moments. But matches are a different animal… The good thing is that I can play tennis again. I feel better physically than Doha. I just have to accept this loss.”

And make no mistake, it was a good match by Andujar, who admitted before beforehand:

“Facing Roger Federer for the first time is a dream come true. It’s something I will tell my children and grand-children when I am old.”

He now has something even more memorable to tell them.

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