Roger Federer, without a Grand Slam title for the first time in eight years, had little chance to indicate the likelihood of holding one again as he comfortably negotiated his first encounter since losing the Australian Open title three weeks ago.
Federer needed only 75 minutes to win 6-3, 6-3 against Somdev Devvarman, the world No. 79 who had been given a wild-card entry with an eye to his popularity with the large Indian expatriate population in Dubai.
It brought a partisan crowd and a full house, which ensured that Federer had extra to overcome to make a successful start to his bid to regain a Dubai Open title he has already won four times.
There was rarely much doubt that he would progress with something to spare, even against an ambitious and improving and so well supported an opponent.
Only when Federer was interviewed on court and asked if his absence of Grand Slam titles meant it was the end of an era, did it became clear that most of the crowd were his fans too, because they booed the question noisily.
When Federer replied: “The answer is — I am playing here,” it was greeted with great cheers.
“It doesn’t stress me out,” he said. “I won the tour finals at the end of last year. Novak [Djokovic] was too good at the Australian Open and I can only respect that, and work on my game and hope that’s enough.”
“In any case, this isn’t about the Grand Slams — my focus is on Dubai,” Federer added.
Federer made many unforced errors for him — more than 30 — but also produced some inspired moments and served well when it mattered. He broke for 4-2 when Devvarman served a double fault, which gave him a hold on the first set, and broke again in the fifth and ninth games of the second set.
Devvarman, a nimble counter-hitter, crafted himself two break points for 3-1 in the second set, but Federer saved the first with a heavy first delivery and the second with a trademark inside-out forehand drive.
He next plays Marcel Granollers of Spain who comfortably beat Dmitry Tursunov, the US-based Russian, and could have a quarter-final with Ernests Gulbis, a dangerously hard-hitting Latvian who troubled him in Doha a year ago.
Federer might even have a surprise semi-final with Gilles Simon, who won for the first time in eight attempts when he overcame Mikhail Youzhny, the fourth-seeded Russian.
Simon, the former world No. 6 from France who is trying to battle back up the rankings after injury problems, showed great patience and superb defense in a 6-3, 7-5 win, despite letting slip a break of serve in the second set and allowing Youzhny to advance to 5-4.
“I was a little nervous because I don’t play well against him,” Simon said. “But I tried different tactics and it worked.”
Federer’s previous match was the chastening straight sets defeat he endured against Djokovic in the semi-finals of the Australian Open.
The Serbian’s first match — a 6-3, 6-3 win over Michael Llodra — since winning that Grand Slam title again suggested he is a better all-round player than when he won it the first time three years ago.
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