By Nick Mulvenney
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Roger Federer made a winning return to competitive tennis after six months out of the game on Monday, thrilling a packed Rod Laver Arena as he beat qualifier Juergen Melzer 7-5 3-6 6-2 6-2 to reach the Australian Open second round.
The Swiss had to battle hard throughout the match against his fellow 35-year-old and only pulled clear of his dogged opponent when the Austrian tired in the final set.
Even Federer could be forgiven a little rustiness after his prolonged absence due to a knee injury and he made 36 unforced errors in his two hours and six minutes on court.
There were, though, plenty of reminders of the brilliant shot-making that have helped Federer to 17 grand slam titles and his 46 to 26 advantage over Melzer in the winner count told the tale of what was ultimately a comfortable win.
The crowd cheered every one to the rafters and, while that pleased Federer, he was clearly just delighted to be back doing what he does best.
“I definitely see things a bit different when you’ve been gone for a long time or when you’ve come back from injury,” he told reporters.
“It was great to be out there. I really enjoyed myself, even though it wasn’t so simple.
“Now being here, feeling like I’m part of this tournament. I wasn’t just in the draw, I’m actually making strides. It’s a good feeling.”
Although he hit 19 aces and increasingly relied on his serve to get out of trouble, Federer was surprised at how long it took him to feel comfortable with that part of his game.
“There were definitely some nerves there,” he added. “I was feeling nervous once the match actually started.
“Think I struggled for a while to find that groove, that rhythm and everything. Then you remind yourself how many times has it not been easy in the first round.”
The secret to the improvement over the final two sets, he thought, had been relaxing a bit.
“I almost felt like I had to pace myself,” he said. “I didn’t want to overthink every play. That was not the idea to come here and go mental about every point..
“I’m happy with the more relaxed attitude. Also success came easier.”
Seeded 17th, Federer has much tougher battles ahead as he continues his bid for a fifth Melbourne Park title.
Next up in the second round on Wednesday, however, is another qualifier in American Noah Rubin.
Having got his first tour match since his semi-final loss to Milos Raonic at Wimbledon in July out of the way, Federer thought his next encounter would not be quite so difficult.
“This match tonight was more based on me, how I’m going to cope with my comeback and my match,” he said.
“But I’m happy with how it went. I think from here on it’s only going to get easier.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)