Seventeen is a number that has long been synonymous with Roger Federer. Ever since lifting a seventh Wimbledon crown in 2012, it’s been the benchmark by which the greats of men’s tennis have been compared. 17 Grand Slams, Roger Federer, clear at the top. But, for almost five years now the Swiss maestro has been unable to add to that tally.
Today, Federer resumed his quest for that elusive 18th major. After a 6-month absence from competitive tennis to rest a recurrent knee injury, he was in action in the first round of the Australian Open at Rod Laver Arena against Austrian qualifier Jurgen Melzer. Whether or not it’s an omen, Roger entered the tournament seeded number 17.
Federer’s relatively low standing amongst the seeds sets him up for a quarter final date with Andy Murray should they both get there, but many observers have perhaps been guilty of looking too far ahead. Before he can get to the Murray tie, Federer will likely have to overcome a third-round match with Tomas Berdych and a fourth-round encounter with Kei Nisikori. And Melzer wasn’t exactly going to roll over and simply play a supporting role in the Return of Roger Federer.
The 35-year-old left-hander, now ranked 300 in the world, broke Federer to take a 4-2 lead in the opening set. Surprisingly it was Roger who looked nervous on the big stage against his fellow veteran, looking rather rusty and slower than in previous years, whilst Melzer was pumped and ready to consolidate his break. In his next service game however, it was apparent he had stirred something of a Federer backlash as the Swiss played slightly more aggressive tennis, breaking back when Melzer netted a forehand volley under pressure. Federer then won his next service game to love in just 71 seconds.
Federer would take the first set 7-5 by holding again to love, in fact winning the last 12 points of the set. But Melzer wasn’t quite done in disrupting the script.
Melzer battled back to take the second set 6-3, becoming the lowest-ranked player to take a set off Federer in over a decade, when no. 1078 Takao Suzuki did so at Tokyo in 2006. Then again, Melzer’s ranking betrays his true ability with the former world number 8 recovering from persistent injuries of his own and shoulder surgery in 2015.
Federer would pick up again at the start of the third though and, from there, sparks of the old Roger began to fly. Winners began to flow as did awe and appreciation from the crowd, Federer mixed things up at the net and his return game dramatically improved. He raced to take the third set 6-2 and it was a case or rinse and repeat in the fourth, with in the final game Federer placing a lob over Melzer to bring up match point and taking the set by the same scoreline when the Austrian fired a forehand wide. 7-5, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 after a little over two hours on court, Federer will face 20-year-old American Noah Rubin in round two.
Murray meanwhile entered his first grand slam match since becoming world number one, with the man on the other side of the net world no. 95 Illya Marchenko. The Ukrainian made for a competitive duel, pushing Murray close over the first two sets but ultimately going down in three, with the Scot taking it 7-5, 7-6 (5), 6-2. Next up for Murray, 19-year-old Andrey Rublev, the world number 152.
It was a tough opening round for 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka, who was taken to five sets by Slovakian Martin Klizan. The current world no. 4 eventually came through 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 but had to spend three-and-a-half hours on court, not ideal preparation for his second round meeting with American Steve Johnson.
World number one and defending champion Angelique Kerber entered the tournament under scrutiny due to recent form, but was expected to come through comfortably against Lesia Tsurenko. Expectation became concern however, when after breezing through the first set 6-2, she missed a match point on serve at 5-4 in the second and went on to lose three consecutive games to take the match into a decider.
Kerber got back into her groove in the third though and survived to take a 6-2, 5-7, 6-2 victory. The German will be delighted to get the opening round under her belt of course, but tougher tests await.
Elsewhere there was a huge shock as Simona Halep was beaten by American Shelby Rogers 6-3, 6-1 to crash out at the first round stage for the second successive year, whilst men’s 16th seed Lucas Pouille lost in the opening round for the fourth year in a row, going down in four sets to Alexander Bublik. Eugenie Bouchard came through impressively 6-0, 6-4 against Louisa Chirico and Garbine Muguruza won in straight sets against Marina Erakovic. There were also victories for Venus Williams, Jack Sock, Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Monica Puig, and the pick of the results from the home fans perspective was the resounding triumph of Nick Krygios. The prodigious yet often controversial Australian brushed aside the challenge of Gastao Elias, losing just five games en route to winning 6-1, 6-2, 6-2.