There was plenty of high-octane tennis on the third day of the ExxonMobil Open in Qatar, but there was only one act which everyone wanted to see namely the return of Roger Federer after his 14 months lay-off from the Tour to recover from knee surgery.
I am happy to be standing here regardless of if I won or lost, but obviously winning feels better. It was a good match. Dan played a good match too. He has been a wonderful training partner as well Roger Federer
And he didn’t disappoint the socially distance crowd packed into the stands on the Centre Court of the Khalifa International Tennis complex who showed their support of the Swiss icon throughout the match as he outlasted his practice partner, Britain’s No.1, Dan Evans 7-6(8) 3-6 7-5.
“It feels good to be back,” a broadly smiling Federer told the crowd following his triumph. “I am happy to be standing here regardless of if I won or lost, but obviously winning feels better. It was a good match. Dan played a good match too. He has been a wonderful training partner as well.”
He didn’t have it all his own way though the Federer magic was evident throughout though there was the odd incident where his lack of match play came through.
For Evans it was a matter of what could have been for he certainly held his own against the former world number one, as for the first time in match play, he took a set off the Swiss icon in four meetings.
Evans kept the pressure on in the third but couldn’t convert a break at 3-all. Federer also missed chances but with the Brit serving 5-6, he got it done with a sizzling backhand winner for his first win since his last appearance at the 2020 Australian Open.
“I felt actually really good and relaxed last night, even though it was like the night before,” Federer said. “Then in the morning I started to think about it and, I don’t know, you can just feel like you’re getting more tense again. Not that you could start worrying, but you’re actually getting more excited than anything else.
“I was really excited and happy the way I played. I mean, Dan was a tough first round, I thought, but the good thing was I probably practiced with him the last couple of weeks so I really knew what to expect. It’s just that when we were practicing, the court was faster and this was slower.
“I knew it could be a little bit tricky how to construct the point against him on a slow court, but look, it felt great to be out there again regardless of the outcome. Losing in straight, winning in straight, winning in three, it’s going to give me a lot of answers. Interesting to see how I’m going to feel tomorrow, but right now I feel actually pretty good so I’m really pleased.
“I realized that I had to come forward more and as the match went on longer, I was able to produce that and really come to the net more and take chances up there,” Federer, who finished with 13 aces said.
“That obviously stresses the body more, because you’re trying to make those plays instead of just staying back and rallying, which can be sometimes a little bit easier in my mind. What I was really happy about, was that I was really explosive, actually, even though of course I was going in swings of being tired again and then feeling better again.”
Evans revealed that Federer’s game was still not fully back.
“I could feel certain parts were not quite there, but it was evident when it got tight he was way more aggressive in the third set,” Evans said.
“I actually thought he played his best tennis in the last three, four games, got himself out of trouble in I think 4-All game. Then when I was 5-4 down, he really come at me. Yeah, I felt a lot of pressure from him, from his game, basically at the back end of the match, which was probably the highest level of the match for him, I thought. Then probably pretty fitting he knitted a backhand down the line to win it.
“I’d say it’s clear he had been off, but I think obviously he showed a lot of glimpses of why he’s so good.”
The 39-year-old Federer will have little time for rest. He’s back on the court Thursday against the big-hitting Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili, who comfortably defeated the wildcard from Tunisia, Malik Jaziri, 6-2 6-2.
Earlier in the day the top seeded Austrian, Dominic Thiem made his first appearance on court and was put through his paces over one-hour and 56-minutes by the Russian AO semi-finalist Aslan Karatsev playing courtesy of a wildcard.
The 27-year-old Russian didn’t disappoint as he pushed the world number four hard in the first set before Thiem got his eye in and swing the match in his favour for a 6-7(5) 6-3 6-2 victory.
“We played in juniors 10 or 11 years ago, and we also practised in Vienna, so he wasn’t completely new to me,” Thiem, who hit nine aces and won 83 per cent of his first-service points, revealed. “But he has raised his level so much in the past six months, especially last month in Australia.
“I was up in the tie-break and then I lost it, which was not nice, but he helped me a little bit in that first game [of the second set]. I think he hit two double faults. After you lose a close set, it’s super important to have a good start in the next one. And that’s what I had. It was pretty fast, 3-0, and so I was positive again in my mind. I also loosened up a little bit and started to play better.”
Thiem will next face 2019 champion and fifth seed Roberto Bautista of Spain. One break of serve in each set was enough for Bautista Agut to beat Kazakhstan’s Alexander Bublik, 6-4 6-3 in 70-minutes.
The inform Russian Andrey Rublev, the third seed and defending champion, was given a day off when Richard Gasquet, the veteran Frenchman, handed him a walk-over having picked up a leg injury.
Rublev now has a rematch with Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics, the player he beat for the Rotterdam title last week after the Hungarian qualifier had dispatched Lloyd Harris of South Africa, in the final match on day three, 4-6 7-6(2) 6-2.
Denis Shapovalov was rock solid on serve Wednesday as the fourth seed won an all-Canadian clash against Vasek Pospisil 7-5 6-4 in one hour and 45-minutes. One break of serve in each set was enough for Shapovalov, who struck seven aces and didn’t face a break point.
Shapovalov will now challenge American Taylor Fritz, who saved three match points in the deciding set to overcome David Goffin of Belgium 6-1 5-7 7-6(9) after two-hour and 35-minutes.