Roughly six months ago, Roger Federer’s rehab from two knee surgeries began at the bottom, his fitness coach Pierre Paganini having him perform exercises that a 70-year-old could perform easily.
Today, 405 days after he’d last played a competitive match, in Doha at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open, 39-year-old Federer labored hard, taking two hours and 25 minutes to get past a formidable 30-year-old, 28th-ranked Daniel Evans, 7-6 (8), 3-6, 7-5.
Calling the match on Tennis Channel, analyst Leif Shiras described Federer’s return to active duty as “required reading.” The story’s key plot twist came in the third set, Federer serving at 3-all. Evans went up love-30, but lost the next point when Federer stabbed a backhand volley. Later in the game, Evans held a break point at 30-40 and another at ad out. Leave it to Federer to fight them off with the versatility that has made millions swoon over him more than any tennis player in the sport’s history. Evans’ first chance, erased with a thundering serve down the T. The second, capped with a seemingly risky but, for Federer, liquid-smooth forehand crosscourt drop shot. Does fortune favor the bold, the skilled or the talented? Maybe all.
Credit Evans for pushing Federer to the limit. The Brit was sharp, showing all you you’d expect from a player who’d earlier this year won his first ATP singles title—and also practiced frequently with Federer just prior to this event.
“It has been nice to see his game,” Evans said before the match. “Obviously it does help I have been able to see it, but it’s still going to be a difficult task.”
With a style that’s arguably a middleweight version of Federer’s, Evans adroitly mixed slice backhands with drives, blistering forehands and many a snappy serve. For 99 percent of this match, the Federer mystique hardly mattered to Evans.
But that one percent territory Federer has occupied for so long proved the difference. In the first set, Federer and Evans traded heavy blows for 12 games—all service holds—before a tiebreak was needed to determine a winner. Down 2-0 in the breaker, Evans went up 4-2 and reached set point, Federer serving at 5-6. But here the Swiss struck a big serve and crisp forehand. Later, Evans serving at 8-9, Federer torched a crosscourt backhand pass to take the 49-minute opener.
Even then, though, it hardly seemed likely that Federer was going to run away with the match. In rally after rally, Evans was comfortable fielding Federer’s array, a profound improvement given that in their previous three matches, Evans had failed to win a set. Today’s second set proved the breakthrough, demonstrated by Evans’ excellent movement, variety and alertness.
Rust does not even sleep for Roger Federer. Though in the end he played just well enough to win, there were frequent moments of spotty play—shanked groundstrokes, misfired volleys, short approaches.
The late stages were nicely dramatic. Evans served at 4-5, love-30. But Federer, perhaps looking to force the action with a bit too much haste, charged the net and was passed by a superb crosscourt backhand. Later in the game, Federer held a match point at ad out. Bringing his own element of surprise, Evans served-and-volleyed and clipped a crosscourt volley winner as sharp as any you’ll ever see. Three points later, at deuce, a cat-and-mouse exchange at the net ensued—the kind Federer usually wins. But in this case, Evans anticipated properly and won it with a nimble backhand volley.
Paul Annacone, Federer's former coach who called the match for Tennis Channel, couldn't believe the missed opportunity.
But then, with the possibility of a decisive tiebreaker looming, Evans disintegrated. Serving at 5-6, he began the game with a double-fault. At 15-all, Evans netted a forehand, followed by a netted backhand. He’d scarcely made an error like that the entire match. But maybe, as the story neared its grand finale, Evans had become aware of the occasion, the moment, the opponent—all the external factors psychologists advise us to dismiss. Not easy. At 15-40, Federer broke open a short rally with one of his menu’s more recent additions: a sizzling backhand down-the-line. Untouchable.
"Nice to finish with a backhand down the line, always on match point," Federer said on court afterward. "Feels good to be back.
"I'm happy to be standing here whether I won or lost. But obviously winning feels better."
Next up for Federer, a very different opponent than Evans: Nikoloz Basilashvili. In their only prior meeting, Federer won easily 6-2, 6-1, 6-2. But that came over five years ago, in the first round of the 2016 Australian Open.
History here hardly matters. What matters more is that today is the first day of the rest of Roger Federer’s tennis life. Take a breath and let the reading continue.