Federer serves up hot starter
DUBAI - Grand Slam record-holder Roger Federer began the second phase of what he hopes will be a revival of his fortunes by racing into the second round of the Dubai Open.
In the process, he displayed some care-free hitting, lively footwork, and an air of authority which evoked his greatest days.
Beating Benjamin Becker, the German once ranked in the a top 40, 6-1, 6-4, was some way from suggesting these might return, but Federer did look pleasingly upbeat and confident as he dispatched a competent middle-range opponent in only 62 minutes.
The 32-year-old Swiss legend, now ranked only eight, wants to do well in Dubai to show his Australian open semi-final last month represented a step forward and not backwards, and that his game still has the potential to reach its former levels.
"I'm playing top tennis right now, so I don't need to top that stuff," Federer claimed for his Melbourne efforts, which saw him beat Wimbledon champion Andy Murray and former Australian Open finalist Tomas Berdych.
"For me it's a matter of staying healthy now, staying consistent, and getting to semi-finals and finals consistently and giving myself opportunities really. I feel I am in good enough shape as in a year at least now."
Certainly Federer has never made a more eye-catching start to this tournament.
He made several effective forays to the net and found an extra gear with his ground strokes when he had chances to break serve, which he did twice in the first set and once in the second.
He also managed one moment of pure theatre. Forced by a Becker lob to make a hasty retreat from the net, Federer not only managed that but responded with a hot dog - a shot between the legs - which parabola-ed into a perfect counter-lob, and set up an unanswerable drop shot.
"It's rare to hit a lob with a hot dog, and I'm happy he got the ball back," said Federer, probably wishing not to humiliate Becker, though the rapture with which the winning two-shot combo was received must have been disconcerting.
Federer's only faltering moments came while he was closing the match out at 5-4. He failed to convert two match points, made three unforced errors in a row and went break point down when he volleyed wide.
But afterwards he seemed satisfied with his work.
"You have to be a little bit confident to play attacking tennis," he said. "Thank god I served well, which you have to in the quicker conditions here in Dubai. Then if you hit well you have an opportunity to come in."
It had been, he suggested "really good fun out there." Relaxation was at the root of his confidence, and days of practice on these Dubai courts was how he engendered the confidence.
"Really I've been preparing for this like for a really big tournament. I've been here since Saturday now, or Friday", Federer said.
"I've had over a week's preparation with not much to do other than practise, so it's been a really good preparation. I hope it's going to pay off."
If he wins the title back he will prevent Novak Djokovic from equalling his record of five titles here. He next plays the winner between Radek Stepanek, the gifted former top ten Czech, and Michael Russell, the 106th ranked American, and is seeded to play Djokovic in the semis.
Djokovic begins his campaign on Tuesday against Denis Istomin, the world number 54 from Uzbekistan.
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