When Roger Federer announced less than three weeks after last summer’s Championships that he would not play again until the new year because of a knee injury, there must have been those who wondered whether they would ever see the seven-time Wimbledon champion on court again.
The fact that the 35-year-old Swiss was true to his word, returning to competition here at last week’s Hopman Cup, underlined how much he loves his lifestyle. Some great champions grow to resent travelling around the world and living out of a suitcase, but Federer has never been one of them.
“I’m happy to play and happy to travel,” Federer had said in Monte Carlo last April when asked if an earlier prolonged break had made him wonder whether he might like a quieter life.
“Whenever you leave your home, especially if you’ve been at home for a while, you’re happy to be in the car with a trunk full of luggage. You might be travelling two hours or 20 hours, whatever it is, but you’re excited to go again.”
It helps, of course, when you can travel in style with your family and a large entourage. Federer arrived here with his wife, Mirka, their four children and a full supporting crew.
Perth was the ideal place for Federer’s return. The round-robin format of the Hopman Cup mixed team competition guaranteed that he would have a minimum of three singles and three mixed doubles matches against high-quality opposition, while the laid-back nature of the event ensured a gentle reintroduction to life on tour.
Federer clearly enjoyed every moment of the experience, from playing tennis on Cottesloe Beach with the Premier of Western Australia to showing his moves on the dance floor with his fellow players at a New Year’s Eve celebration, from attending a musical to visiting Rottnest Island with his family, and from cuddling a baby kangaroo (with, admittedly, a slightly anxious look on his face) to pretending to play the bongos as he watched his playing partner, Belinda Bencic take on Andrea Petkovic.
“It’s easy to do the bongos like that when Belinda’s winning,” Federer laughed when told that the video clip of him had gone viral around the world. “My dad wrote me an email and said: ‘Can you please stop that right now’.”
The Perth public, too, loved having the world’s most famous tennis player here. With all three of Switzerland’s group matches sold out, Federer asked if the doors of the Perth Arena could be opened to the public when he practised here for the first time. More than 6,000 people turned up.
The record attendance for a tennis event in Western Australia was broken twice, with crowds of 13,684 and 13,785 watching Switzerland’s first two matches, which was many more than came to watch Nick Kyrgios and Daria Gavrilova begin the ultimately unsuccessful defence their title.
The good news for Federer fans around the world is that their man is looking in good shape. In his first appearance since his semi-final defeat to Milos Raonic at The Championships, the Swiss needed barely an hour to beat Britain’s Dan Evans. He admitted afterwards that he had felt quite emotional going back on the court, especially after the rapturous welcome he was given.
“It felt good putting the match shirt back on and going out there, serving first, trying to serve it out at the end,” Federer added. “These are the moments I have missed the most. Even though those are the ones that make you nervous, that’s what you play tennis for.”
In his second outing Federer played in the match of the tournament so far when he lost to Germany’s Alexander Zverev, one of the most exciting teenagers in the game, after three hard-fought sets, which all went to tie-breaks. Federer’s last singles match brought a straight-sets victory over Richard Gasquet, though the Swiss were denied a place in the final when they lost the mixed doubles after Bencic had been beaten by Kristina Mladenovic.
Crucially, Federer had no problems with his left knee, thanks in large part to the rehabilitation work he did in the first three months after The Championships. With the Australian Open starting in Melbourne on Monday, he now faces the challenge of playing matches over the best of five sets.