By Giri Nathan
Let’s catch up on a historic week in tennis. Novak Djokovic racked up 311 total weeks as the world No. 1, at long lost surpassi—holy crap did you see Roger Federer is back on the court in new shoes? Many Americans have spent this week tripping out over the banal things they were doing exactly one year ago, as a means of marking how long we’ve been stuck in this pandemic. It’s been even longer since Fed went into the office. This Wednesday in Doha marked his first appearance on court since January 2020, when he lost to Djokovic in the Australian Open semis. He took the rest of the season off to get two procedures done on his right knee and work his way back up to tour strength. When he showed up to his first coin toss on Wednesday in Doha, he was still asking Mo Lahyani about the COVID-specific rules. We carry our own towels now, Rog. (He forgot to snag his before changing sides after the first game.)
The fugue of this past year has had me forgetting things that should be utterly familiar. Watching Federer in Doha had me like, “Oh, this is actually pretty nice to watch. People should look out for this guy. Might make some noise this season.” I suspect that gratitude for the ordinary is something we will find ourselves feeling over and over again in 2021, and now, watching an athlete we’ve all fixated on for years, I found myself enjoying all over again: how his footwork makes him float, how he makes contact with the ball that characteristic fraction of a second before anyone else would. And the very slightly jarring effect that has on the viewer. I’d forgotten what tennis looks like with Federer Timing, and with all due respect to every other tennis player in history, it’s just…different. Coincidentally that last idea is all we Fed dead-enders will have to fall back on in sweaty GOAT debates, once the rest of the records have been snatched away. Roger Federer: just hits different.
First up in Doha was Daniel Evans, a familiar face across the net; they’d apparently played some 20 practice sets together in recent weeks. Evans happens to be caught up in some of the best tennis of his career, having won his first-ever title at a tune-up in Melbourne. He looks fit and focused. I’ve always liked him: He’s the rare short guy hyper-reliant on a backhand slice, with a bazooka on the forehand side, shot selection that skews toward the bold, and perhaps the only honest excuse for a positive cocaine test that tennis has ever seen. His presence always makes the match more interesting. So maybe Evans deserves some of the credit for this one’s watchability, because in his first match back, Federer played all the classics: unfairly angled passing shot under pressure, improvised wrist flick, the backhand tracing the sideline on match point. He said he loved finishing matches on that shot, and was happy to be back. Staging a return to tour at age 39 is hard, he admitted, even if you wouldn’t be able to tell from the highlight reel.
If that first match was Federer’s refresher on how pretty tennis could be, the second match, against Nikoloz Basilashvili, was a reminder of how ugly it can get. Looking a little more like a guy who’d taken 405 days off the job, he won the first set, got breadsticked in the second, and was (gasp) visibly sweating in the third. As a friend likes to say: If Roger Federer is perspiring, the conditions may not be safe to play sports. But then, late in the third, after straining to defend his serve the previous two tries, he tossed off one of those vintage one-minute service games. And a couple points later came his match point at 5–4. That one slipped away from him, as did the next two games and the match. For Basilashvili, a former top 20 player who somehow hasn’t beaten a top 200 player since the restart and hasn’t won three matches in a row since summer 2019, beating even a creaky Roger is a pretty decent way to shake off the funk. Afterwards, Federer said he was feeling his shoulder and would be pulling out of Dubai next week. He’s done with the hard courts for now, to better prepare for the grass season, and just might make an appearance on clay. Now that I remember what it’s like I already have the hankering for more.
Above: Roger Federer is happy to be back on the hard court in Doha. (Getty)
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