“The Great Man” is how commentators invariably refer to Roger Federer in Melbourne. After watching him play there for 18 years, and win four titles, the Aussies honor this native of Switzerland as if he’s one of their own tennis legends.
Outside the press area in Melbourne Park, the most prominent photo is one of Rod Laver handing the winner’s trophy to a tearful Federer in 2007. “Roger is revered here,” Courtney Walsh, a sportswriter at The Australian told me. “As a colleague of mine said, ‘When Federer broke down in front of Laver a few years back, it was as if he had become one of us.”
Federer won his first Grand Slam match at the Australian Open, in 2000. Unfortunately, last year he also experienced his first major injury in Melbourne, when he turned his knee the wrong way while drawing a bath for his kids—that really is like “one of us.” The injury kept him off the tour for the last five months of 2016.
So it made sense that Federer, his knee now healed, would return in Australia. On Monday, the fans in Rod Laver Arena filled the seats and waited patiently for the Great Man to make his late-evening entrance. For a split-second, when they stood and cheered as he walked onto the court, Federer looked to be on the verge of tearing up again.
What didn’t make sense was what Federer did when he finally began to play his first-round match against Jurgen Melzer. He shanked four straight balls and lost the opening game at love. The fans stopped making noise.
“We just witnessed as bad as game as you’ll ever see Federer play,” ESPN’s John McEnroe said through the silence.
“I think there were definitely some nerves there,” Federer admitted. “I was feeling nervous once the match actually started. I was actually fine all day, warming up, in the warm-up five minutes with Jurgen. Then I hit four frames in a row. It was like, ‘Whew, it’s not as easy as I thought it was going to be.’”
Federer began to find the court, but he was still tentative. In this battle of 35-year-olds, it was Melzer who was the aggressor during the first set, and Federer who was on his back foot. After his lay-off, that shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but this is Federer, so it did. When he mishit an approach and Melzer snapped off a backhand pass to break for 4-2, silence reigned in Laver.
“I think I struggled for a while to find that groove, that rhythm and everything,” Federer said. “Then you remind yourself how many times has it not been easy in the first round.”
It didn’t get easier right away for Federer. He came back to win the first set, after Melzer handed the break back to him, but in the second set the Austrian was ready to capitalize on his chance. He broke at 3-4 and held to level the match at one set each. Melzer may not be what he once was, but he was a Top 20 player in his prime, and being a lefty, he had success swinging his serve and forehand into Federer’s backhand.
According to Federer, if there was a problem, it was that he was working too hard mentally—over-concentrating, if that’s possible. He wouldn’t be the first. If slowing down is the physical pitfall that comes with age, over-thinking is the mental one.
“I was trying to do that [focus on each point] in the first two sets until I realized it was just consuming me,” Federer said. “It was just like it’s too much already...I almost felt like I had to pace myself. I didn’t want to overthink every play. That was not the idea to come here and go mental about every point.”
After the second set, Federer finally relaxed, and “success came easier,” as he put it. He has always been an exceptionally instinctive player, one who’s at his best when he’s flowing freely and moving quickly from one point to the next.
Federer had looked to be in that flow in the Hopman Cup exhibition last week. But to get back to that state in a real match in Melbourne, he had to get his brain out of the way again. He had to remember, after six months, not to think. Two sets in, Federer began to breath and play a little easier, and he ran away from Melzer for a 7-5, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 win. When all else failed, he still had his serve; 19 aces smoothed the way to victory.
“I was happy with the more relaxed attitude,” Federer said of his play over the last two sets.
Federer should be pleased to shake off the mental and physical rust. But his tentative opening two sets remain a cause for concern. Does he have the power and explosiveness to stay with players 10 to 15 years younger, who are taller and hit bigger, especially with their serves and backhands? If Melzer can push him back, won’t the guys in the Top 10 be able to do the same? We’ll find out soon: Federer could face Tomas Berdych in the third round, Kei Nishikori in the fourth round and Andy Murray in the quarters.
The Aussie tennis tradition produced dozens of immortal achievements, but one that grows more legendary with each passing season is Ken Rosewall’s victory at the 1972 Australian Open, at age 37; no one in the Open era, man or woman, has won one at a more advanced age. Federer has cited it as an inspiration in the past. But if he’s going to follow in Muscles’ footsteps and win one at 35, the Great Man will have to be greater than he was on Monday.