Roger Federer seemed to have talked his way into a scare before beginning an up-and-down defense of his Dubai Open title with a recovery against an opponent even more popular than himself on Monday.
The Grand Slam record-holder had said before the match that it often took him a while to suss out players he had never previously played — and sure enough, he ran into trouble against the best player in the Arab world, Malek Jaziri, dropping the first set to loud cheers.
When Federer found a couple of extra gears, taking the next two sets in less than three-quarters of an hour, a 5-7, 6-0, 6-2 win brought him prolonged applause as well.
However, the outcome brought a definite sense of premonition with it.
“People might think, okay he’s a wild-card, so it’s an easy draw,” Federer had said. “I think it’s tricky, because I don’t know exactly his pattern, his favorite shots, all those things.”
“It’s always a big match here in the Middle East playing someone like him. And first rounds always create pressure as I’m the defending champion and I want to start well. So it’s not a simple match for me,” he said.
Nevertheless, some of this was dramatically improbable.
Jaziri had not played a match for more than three months because of a knee injury, and is ranked outside the top 100.
However, the Tunisian has talent and attitude, hitting big first serves and playing with the dangerous freedom of an underdog pleased just to get a bite or two into Federer’s trouser-leg.
There were also other pressures on the Swiss ace, which he described with a mixture of honesty and a nicely bizarre sense of humor.
“I also think that it played on my mind, you know, that he has this huge knee brace, and a tape, not having played this year,” he said, with a crazy chortle. “Got to win, right?”
Federer finished with some great serving statistics, several searing forehands, and a few nimble sideways scrambles that belied his status as the oldest top 10 player.
Earlier, he even half-admitted that he is past his best, having stated that most players peak between the ages of 23 and 27. When he was then asked if he was past his prime, his immediate reaction was laughter.
“It depends,” he said, buying time to think. “I think I’m playing excellent tennis, but if you look back historically, I think that’s usually when you’re supposed to be playing your best.”
“But then of course there are exceptions. There are guys who win Grand Slams at 16 and some win them at 34. So it depends on how you see things,” Federer said.
“Right now, even the over-30 guys are consistent on tour. It’s nice to see them hanging in there,” he said.
In fact, Andre Agassi at the age of 32 is the oldest player of the modern era to have won a Grand Slam title, although more than 40 years ago, at the start of the open era, Ken Rosewall won a Grand Slam title at 37.
However, both by words and deeds, Federer managed to convince that he is nowhere near ready for retirement. He next plays the winner of an all-Spanish tussle between Marcel Granollers and Albert Montanes, ranked 34 and 89 respectively.