January 18, 2017
Roger Federer rolled back the years with flashes of effortless brilliance to overcome American hot-shot Noah Rubin at the Australian Open.
But he won’t want to remember the earlier stages of the third set too often – even though he eventually fought his way through a mini-crisis to win through 7-5, 6-3, 7-6(3).
The great Federer faced two set points as he began to misfire. Had he lost either, he would have suffered the embarrassment of a 2-6 reverse and a fourth set he didn’t need at the age of 35.
Instead, the 20-year-old Rubin snatched at his winners, forgetting what had earned him that promising position in the first place.
The veteran 17th seed managed to feed off those nerves, provoke more tightness in his opponent, and build more composure and confidence in his own mind.
In the end, he was back to the convincing figure who had started the match, sending sizzling shots over the net with consummate ease, moving freely again in his flame-coloured footwear.
Roger, still feeling his way back after a six-month lay-off with an injury, was refreshingly honest as he admitted: ‘I wasn’t feeling as good as I was at the beginning. There were a lot of difficult moments I need to get used to again if I’m going to keep progressing.
‘He had a couple of set points on my serve but it was good to fight through. My serve kept me in the match today.’
Indeed Federer had already fired 17 aces as he closed in on victory to set up a delicious third-round clash against Tomas Berdych. But Roger’s kicker second serve often looked vulnerable as Rubin punished its lack of depth at times.
And as his unforced-error count on his forehand began to soar into the twenties, Federer threw a third-set tantrum and turned the air blue, realising he was about to fall 0-3 behind.
But his experience told as he fought back from 2-5 with a commendable blend of spirit and technique. And there had already been moments of magic from one of the all-time greats of world sport.
Tricky half-volleys made to look ridiculously easy, gliding passes and moments of stunning power and ruthlessness put Federer in command.
As the crowd in the Rod Laver Arena purred with delight, the tennis world realised just how lucky we are to have the Swiss master back in the big time once more – on the comeback trail that we all hope will lead him to the latter stages at Wimbledon this summer.
Federer has said himself that the Australian Open might have come a bit early in that process, and Berdych will offer a formidable challenge in the next round.
As Federer observed: ‘It’s not an easy job. Tomas has beaten me in New York, he has beaten me at Wimbledon and he will want to beat me here in Australia too.’
But the 17-time Grand Slam champion will come out fighting once more and he will thrill the crowds, win or lose. This is a moment to savour the return of the superstar, one of the most popular sportsmen on the planet, and to hope he continues to rediscover the magic that leaves us all open-mouthed with wonder.
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