When Roger Federer stepped onto Centre Court on Wednesday at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open, the Swiss ended his 405-day absence from professional tennis.
During those 405 days, the sport has had to adapt to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and Federer himself has been forced to recover from two right knee surgeries. Despite all the changes, one thing remained the same in Federer’s three-set win against Daniel Evans. Under pressure, he found his best tennis.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion saved a set point at 5/6 in the first-set tie-break and escaped two break points at 3-3 in the decider. According to his opponent, Federer found his best level in the final games of the match to improve to 27-3 in Doha.
“I was very happy with how I was able to handle the tough moments,” said Federer. “I didn’t feel like my game started to wobble the more important the points got. I think I was able to play how I wanted to play, so I think that’s always a great sign and a great feeling to have…
“In practice, it doesn’t matter if you miss a backhand down the line being down break point. But here it matters a lot. I think not serving any double faults in my first match back over two hours and 20 minutes, I think that’s a sign that the knee is doing really well on the serve, which I think is crucial.”
Federer and Evans spent the past two weeks preparing for the tournament together. The pair also took to the court in Doha shortly after the draw was made last Saturday for a one-hour practice session.
One of the challenges for Federer during the match was to work out how to construct points against the Brit. During their pre-tournament training block, Federer and Evans practised in faster conditions.
“I was really excited and happy [with] the way I played. Dan was a tough first round, I thought, but the good thing was I practised with him the past couple of weeks, so I really knew what to expect,” said Federer. “It’s just that when we were practising, the court was faster in the past so this was slower.
“I knew it could be a little bit tricky, [working out] 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 [sets], winning in straight [sets], winning in three [sets], it’s going to give me a lot of answers. [It will be] interesting to see how I’m going to feel tomorrow, but right now I feel actually pretty good, so I’m really pleased.”
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Federer was pleased that he was able to make this return in front of fans at the Khalifa International Tennis & Squash Complex. In line with COVID-19 regulations, the tournament has been able to welcome a reduced number of socially-distanced supporters. The crowd cheered loudly as Federer stepped onto court and they also created a memorable atmosphere throughout the match.
“I am incredibly grateful that I was able to play on my return in front of somebody and the fans were good,” said Federer. “They were into it… In the tie-break, they were really getting into it…
“After a while, I didn’t even feel anymore that there were less people than normal in the stadium, because you’re in the zone and it went very well for me. I’m very appreciative for everybody who came out to support tennis tonight.”