STUTTGART, June 13, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
The legendary Roger Federer made his long-awaited return to the tennis world on Wednesday as he opened his grass court season against German favorite Mischa Zverev at the MercedesCup in Stuttgart, Germany. It was his first tournament competition since losing to Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis in the opening round at Miami on March 24.
After opting out of the entire clay court season for a second straight year, a formula that worked very well for the 36-year-old Swiss in 2017, the World No. 2 seemed eager to get back to business against Mischa Zverev, the 30-year-old older brother of third-ranked Alexander Zverev, whom he owned a career head-to-head win-loss record of 5-0 against, including a pair of wins on grass at both Halle and Wimbledon last year.
Comeback after three months
Federer returned to action with 12-match, 30-set win streaks on grass, a surface which he has long favored with eight Wimbledon titles and nine won at the Gerry Weber Open in Halle to his credit. However, following a 17-0 start to his 2018 season, Federer came into this week’s play at Stuttgart having lost his last two matches – against Juan Martín del Potro in the final at Indian Wells and against Kokkinakis. One had to go back in the record book to 2002 to find the last time Federer had lost three matches in a row.
Not to worry, though. Federer broke his two-match losing streak with a nice come-from-behind 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 win over Zverev in one hour and 33 minutes on a cloudy, 16º Celsius afternoon before a packed Centre Court audience at the Tennis Club Weissenhof that came bundled up for the occasion.
“Three months is a long time, it’s longer than the year-end break. So, I’m very happy returning on good terms onto the tour,” Federer said during his media gathering after beating Zverev. “It was difficult, missed some chances, maybe, in the first set. … He connected well at the right times.
“And then I found a way, I found my rhythm. I’m very happy with how I played. I’m super happy to be back on tour. It’s been a great start.”
Still wearing Nike
Oh, and yes, Federer was attired in aqua blue Nike apparel with his familiar black bandana-style headband and matching black socks. The subject of Federer’s kit – whether he would continue wearing the American-brand Nike as he’s done throughout his career or bolt for Japanese-brand Uniqlo – had lit up social media the past several days. Federer, whose contract with Nike ran out in March, addressed the subject during his post-match press conference, saying: “As long as I don’t have a new contract with a clothing sponsor, I continue wearing Nike, which has been a good partner for 20 years.”
No. 1 spot in sight
In picking Stuttgart to make his return to the ATP Tour like he did last year, it provided Federer with an opportunity to begin building toward Wimbledon, which is less than three weeks away. If Federer needed any additional incentive, he can regain the No. 1 ATP ranking on June 18 if he reaches the MercedesCup final. He trails World No. 1 Rafael Nadal by only 100 points.
“I think that’s a bit of extra motivation,” Federer said before the start of the tournament. “But then again, having lost here last year in the first round, for me, it resets the goals as well, and just take it one at a time and don’t think too far ahead. Not that I did that last year, but on grass, margins are very slim. It’s not so simple, especially when you haven’t played in three months.”
Tricky opening opponent
Unlike last year, when Federer fell to Tommy Haas in the opening round after reaching the semifinals in 2016, Federer came out on Centre Court fresh and healthy and looking focused and confident, too. He was ready to play against the 54th-ranked Zverev, a serve-and-volley specialist. And Zverev, who had never won a set against Federer, was ready, too.
As he awaited his turn to walk out on court, Zverev told SRF Sport, “It’s always a great pleasure and joy for me to play against Roger, although I never won so far. Maybe, I’ll try something new … besides only serve and volley, but I don’t really know what, as of now.”
As it happened, after being on serve through the first seven games, Zverev broke Federer at love in the eighth game when the Swiss maestro netted a volley return to push ahead 5-3. Then, Zverev held at love to capture the 33-minute opening set, thanks to an unforced error by Federer, a couple of service aces and a backhand volley winner at the net. Zverev saved all four break points he faced and converted his only break-point opportunity against the No. 1 seed. Athough he didn’t abandon his serve-and-volley approach, Federer found ways to exploit it.
Federer rebounded in the second set, and with three holds of his serve, he gained two break points against Zverev in the sixth game. The German fought off the first one, then Federer ripped a forehand long for deuce. However, the Swiss broke with a forehand winner followed by a cross-court, backhand winner to lead 4-3. It was short lived as Zverev immediately broke back in the next game by hitting a backhand winner at 15-40 to get back on serve. Then, ahead 5-4, Federer strung together four consecutive points to win the set 6-4, culminated by Zverev netting a backhanded half-volley return on set point as the match eclipsed the hour mark.
As the third set unfolded, Federer built upon his second-set success by playing solid and focused tennis. After being broken in the first set, he strung together seven consecutive service holds. Ahead 2-1, he gained three break points in the fourth game and didn’t waste any of them. Federer hit a backhand down the line that eluded Zverev for the break and a 3-1 lead. Then, his fourth service ace gave him a game point at 40-15, and Zvevev hit a forehand long on the next point that enabled Federer to increase his lead to 4-1.
Later, Federer saved a break point with a nifty backhand volley at the net and held his serve with a forehand winner for a commanding 5-2 advantage. The finish line appeared in sight for Federer. In the next game, he gained match point at 30-40 with a series of classic Federer points, which included a nifty forehand drop shot that Zverev was unable to successfully return and a sizzling backhand passing shot. Federer won on his first match-point opportunity with a forehand winner that left Zverev stunned in his tracks as the tennis ball whizzed past him.
Federer finished by placing 68 percent of his first serves in play and won 36 of 48 (75 percent) of his first-serve points, including five service aces. He saved three of five break points he faced and lost just 22 points on his serve. Meanwhile, Zverev’s first-serve percentage was a respectable 59 percent. He won 34 of 52 (65 percent) of his first-serve points, but was broken four times in 10 tries. Federer outpointed Zverev 84-75.
“It feels good to win again,” Federer admitted afterward. “It’s nice to get a fresh start here.”
Next, Federer will face either No. 75 Guido Pella of Argentina or qualifier Prajnesh Gunneswaran of India, ranked 169th, in Friday’s quarterfinal round.
If a single match can be a determining factor in one’s level of confidence and happiness, then things just might turn out very well for Federer the rest of this week.