How Roger Federer fared in his comeback win over British No. 1 Dan Evans
After 405 days away from competitive tennis, Roger Federer made his much-anticipated return on Wednesday evening in Doha as he narrowly beat British No. 1 Dan Evans.
Federer, the 20-time Grand Slam champion from Switzerland, had not played since the coronavirus pandemic took a grip of the world and had endured two rounds of knee surgery in the 13 months that followed his semi-final defeat to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the 2020 Australian Open.
Draped in a typically suave green outfit – with matching headband, naturally – Federer still looked the part as he was welcomed onto court but his return had arrived with a note of caution.
Federer admitted he was not expecting to be ‘100%’ until the grass-court season and warned there was no guarantee his knees would even hold up until then. An important reminder to cherish this sporting great while you still can.
World No. 28 Evans is a good match-up, on paper, for Federer. While a smart, tricky player, he lacks huge weapons. Coming into the match, he had never taken a set off the Swiss.
Both know each other well and had spent a couple of weeks practising together at Federer’s base in Dubai. Evans, before the match, said he felt Federer having such a thorough understanding of his game was a disadvantage: ‘I think it’s tougher for me by a long stretch, yeah.’
Their insider knowledge did nothing to harm the contest. Evans gave a good account of himself in a highly-competitive encounter and Federer, well, you wouldn’t know he was playing his first match in more than a year.
The serve, for large parts, was metronomic. The movement seemed uninhibited. The anticipation remains unparalleled. Forehands were crunched. Backhands sent spinning off the court with wicked slice. Sure, there was the odd shank or mistimed return and fatigue played its toll as the match wore on, but for a 39-year-old playing his first match since double knee surgery, it was pretty impressive.
The result at this stage in Federer’s comeback is not really important but still, it’s nice to get a win. It finished 7-6 (10-8) 3-6 7-5 after the best part of two-and-a-half hours.
Federer said in his on-court interview: ‘It feels good to be back. Happy to be standing here regardless if I won or lost but obviously winning feels better. It was a great match…. I’m just very happy.’
Everyone on site was keen to catch a glimpse of the eight-time Wimbledon champion, including the Qatar Open’s top seed Dominic Thiem. After fighting back from a set down to beat Aslan Karatsev, Thiem said: ‘I think every tennis player, also me who is kind of a rival of his – I’m also a fan of him.
‘I love to watch him play, love also to learn from him and probably I’ll see a set or more live tonight because I’m excited about it.’
Sure enough, Thiem was in the stands before the end of the first set to sink his teeth into what was an engaging battle.
Federer showed his first signs of rust before the match had even begun. As the toss took place, the Swiss great had to check with chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani whether the shot clock still ran to 25 seconds.
He also had to clarify whether he needed to fetch his own towel – something he has not had to do having suffered his injury before the pandemic brought in such regulations.
Federer – one of sport’s most naturally gifted athletes – had compared returning to tennis to riding a bike and there was no problem hitting his spots on serve in the opening game.
He landed all five of his first serves, holding to 15 with a cute sliced ace out wide.
A first return winner flew off his racquet in the second point of Evans’s first service game, his sense of timing impeccable as ever as he sent a blocked backhand up the line beyond the British No. 1.
Still, Evans was pretty comfortable on his serve in the early exchanges, with the Federer return looking less slick in comparison to his own serve.
In the ninth game of the opening set, Evans – who had been notably more aggressive on the forehand wing – served up a cool backhand winner down the line to carve out the match’s first break point but Federer showed he can still handle big moments as he saved it with a couple of booming forehands.
It was a similar affair on set point as Federer rasped an inside out forehand winner past his helpless opponent. It wasn’t all perfect, though, as he horribly miscued a drive volley into the bottom of the net on a set point of his own at 8-7.
Moments later, the set was his. A rasping backhand pass left Evans watching and admiring as he fell behind after a superb tiebreak.
Federer was unable to capitalise on an early break point in the second set and suddenly a few more errors were creeping into his game.
Several shanks flew off his racquet in the fourth game of the second set and Evans capitalised on his way to levelling the match.
Federer was more than willing to get into the net and showed off his lightness of touch with a delicate half-volley flick to hold midway through the third.
That said, Federer appeared more fatigued as the match went on. He wasn’t landing as many serves and his footwork appeared a little more sluggish. He admitted as much after its conclusion: ‘I was tired. I was more focused on being tired than trying to win the point. If I was going to go out, I was going to go out swinging.’
Still, he coolly saved two break points in the seventh game of the decider, one with the calmest of drop-shots.
Evans showed some serious mettle of his own with a high-class serve and volley play to save match point but two games later it was over, with Federer launching a backhand winner down the line – something he said was a pretty satisfying finish.
On the work he put in to get back onto the court, he concluded: ‘It’s been a long and tough road for me. I enjoyed it though, it’s been a huge challenge in my tennis career to come back at my age, it’s not something that’s very simple. It was worth it, I played a great match today.’
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