Roger Federer battles past Dan Evans on return from knee injury in Qatar

Sport

Thirteen months since the last time he felt the deep satisfaction of winning a professional tennis match, Roger Federer took a step towards normality as he defeated Britain’s Dan Evans 7-6 (8), 3-6, 7-5 in an encouraging, high-quality contest in the second round of the Qatar Total Open in Doha.

“Feels good to be back,” Federer said. “I’m happy to be standing here regardless of if I won or lost. But obviously winning feels better. Dan played a good match too – he’s been a wonderful training partner as well with me the last weeks. We played over 20 sets and it went on. It’s great fun.”

A measure of just how long Federer had spent away from tennis came before anyone even struck a ball. During the coin toss, Federer was not even sure of the rules. He asked the umpire, Mohamed Lahyani, about the 25‑second shot clock and handling towels between points now that ballkids are no longer allowed to touch them. As he changed ends after the opening game, Federer predictably forgot to carry his towel with him to the other side.

Both in Qatar this week and over the coming months, Federer will be looking to see how his knee reacts in match conditions after two arthroscopic surgeries. The two hours and 25 minutes of intense tennis was, above all, a positive confirmation of the considerable work he has undertaken just to be back on court.

Although his return was erratic and it took time to look comfortable in the longer exchanges, Federer opened the match in good form. He served well, saved set point at 5-6 with a forehand winner and, deep in the first-set tie‑break, answered questions about how he would move on his surgically repaired knee.

At 7-7 in the tie-break, Evans attacked an inside-in forehand only to watch Federer flit to his right and then deflect the forehand crosscourt for a winner. He closed out the set with another exhibition of his enduring agility, flicking an easy passing shot winner on set point to take it on his third attempt.

Evans is now ranked No 28 and is playing some of the best tennis of his career despite travelling without a coach since the end of 2020, and he showed the quality of his varied, creative game throughout. While Evans’s level remained constant for most of the match, Federer’s rust began to show as the match wore on. He lost rhythm on his first serve and began to shank groundstrokes off both wings. Evans took a 4-1 lead in the second set and survived pressure while serving to level the match.

By the third set, Evans took the upper hand against a tiring opponent. At 3-3, Evans generated two break points only to watch Federer save the first with an ace down the T and the second with a handsome drop-shot winner.

Even after 404 days without competing, Federer does not present such opportunities often and he quickly slammed the door. He generated a first match point at 5-4, which Evans saved with a lovely serve and volley. Two games later, Federer made no mistake on the second match point, slamming a down-the-line backhand winner.

Federer said he will know more about the strength of his knee only with time: “Important is how I feel tomorrow, the next day and so forth for the next six months basically. It’s been a long and tough road for me. I enjoyed it, though.

“I must say, it’s been a huge challenge of mine in my tennis career. To come back at my age is not something that’s very simple but I’ve had a wonderful team around myself that always supported me throughout and that made it much easier. It was worth it because I played a great match today.”

Evans expressed his disappointment at failing to secure the biggest win of his career, shrugging off the notion he could take positives from the defeat: “I think it would be fair to say that British people are pretty happy to play a good match. That’s what’s frustrating tonight. Didn’t quite get over the line. It was a good match but at the end of the day it’s a loss.

“That’s what frustrates me when I hear: ‘You played a good match.’ It is good but you need to win. If it hurts, I think it’s a strength that you can come back out and you’ll serve yourself well from when you’re going to the next one.”