Fans pack in to welcome Federer back with a bang
It was as if he had never been away. In his first match for six months Roger Federer beat Britain's Dan Evans 6-3, 6-4 at the Hopman Cup in Perth and gave every indication that he will be a contender for major honours again in the weeks and months to come.
The 35-year-old Swiss had not played since Wimbledon, when he injured his left knee, and admitted that going back out on court in front of such an adoring crowd had stirred his emotions.
The 17-times Grand Slam champion quickly found his stride. His forehand looked as formidable as ever and the weight of his shots regularly had Evans in trouble. If there were times when Federer looked a little ring-rusty that was hardly a surprise given his lengthy break.
The Perth Arena had been far from full the previous evening, when the Australians Nick Kyrgios and Daria Gavrilova began the defence of their trophy, but all of Federer's matches have been sold out and the attendance of 13,684 for his first outing was a tournament record. More than 6,000 people turned up last week just to watch his first practice session.
"The welcome was extra special," Federer said after his 61-minute victory. "It felt nice walking on court and getting that reception. I was actually quite emotional when I walked on. I was like: 'Oh my God this is better than I thought it was going to be.'
"It felt good putting the match shirt back on and going out there, serving first, then trying to serve it out at the end. 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. I thought actually for a first match it was great, because expectations are obviously quite low."
Federer said he had experienced no problems with his knee, which had been feeling good for the last three or four weeks. "You possibly expect some sort of a reaction just because the intensity and the nerves of playing a match again could trigger something, but after this match I don't think so," he said.
Evans, meanwhile, is hoping to build on the best year of his career, when he climbed 121 places in the rankings to finish 2016 at No 66 in the world.
This is his first appearance in this mixed event, in which eight national teams of two players each are split into two round-robin groups. Each match comprises a men's singles, a women's singles and a mixed doubles.
Evans' partner is Heather Watson, who was beaten 7-5, 3-6, 6-2 by Belinda Bencic after failing to build on her recovery in the second set, in which she had been a break down.
Federer and Bencic completed a 3-0 victory for Switzerland when they beat Evans and Watson 4-0, 4-1 in the mixed doubles, which is being played under the shortened "Fast4" format.
Although Evans was satisfied with his own performance against Federer he admitted: "It was obviously tough playing Roger. It was his sort of show out there. It's difficult to put your game across.
"It was pretty nerve-racking to go out in front of that many people to play your first match when you're not sure how things are going to go. I thought I did all right. He played unbelievably again. I think he's going to be just fine this year."
Evans added: "He times the ball so well. It's on you really quickly. It's faster than anything I've ever faced before. It's so tough out there against him."
After a day of glorious sunshine the roof over the arena was kept open, but the steep sides of the stadium ensured that the court was in shade even when the first match started at 5.30pm.
Federer was soon into his stride, hitting an ace on the first point. Evans saved two break points in the fourth game, but two games later he was broken for the first time.
A beautifully timed volley took Federer to break point and a forehand winner completed the job.
Evans had his chances in the next game as Federer went 15-40 down, but a thumping drive volley saved the first break point and the Briton missed a forehand on the second. Federer served out for the set, which he took with a forehand winner.
In the opening game of the second set Evans saved two break points with big serves, but on the third the Briton mishit a backhand.
When Federer had a break point for a 3-0 lead two games later he was threatening to run away with the match, but Evans saved it with a classy drop shot and, to his credit, continued to make a match of it. However, the Briton had no further break points and Federer went on to serve out for victory.
Federer said afterwards that he felt relieved but also sad that his first match was over.
"I'd like to live it again," he smiled. "I enjoyed it so much, walking out there, just talking to the crowd, thanking them for coming out."