They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and that certainly seems to be the case when it comes to Federer and Dubai.
The Swiss was given a hero’s welcome at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Monday night after missing the event with a knee injury last year.
Hours before the match started, fans dressed in RF-attire and Swiss flags swarmed the Aviation Club in preparation for Federer’s first appearance since his historic Australian Open triumph in Melbourne last month.
The 35-year-old received a standing ovation as he walked on the court and the stadium witnessed a sell-out crowd for the first time this fortnight.
The only disappointment for the Federer fanatics was that his first round victory over an injured Benoit Paire lasted only 54 minutes.
The seven-time Dubai champion eased past the temperamental Paire 6-1, 6-3 to set up a second round with either former runner-up Mikhail Youzhny or Russian qualifier Evgeny Donskoy.
“It’s nice as you’re warming up you hear the crowd already somewhat as they’re getting pumped up by someone. You hear music and hear the roars. Then when you walk out, I don’t know, it’s a nice feeling to have. You know, it’s mutual, because I missed playing here last year,” said Federer, who took part in a ceremony after his win to celebrate the tournament’s 25th anniversary.
“I have played here for so many years, seen the tournament grow. And especially after Australia, fans and myself know how special it is for me to be back on the court. It was a nice welcome. Very thankful always.”
Federer entered the match with a 3-0 record against the French shot-maker and an 11-1 win-loss record in Dubai first rounds.
Paire’s wild and unorthodox style was on display from his very first service game as he sent Federer to all four corners of the court with slices and drop shots before he inexplicably volleyed wide. He held serve though for 1-all.
Federer snuck up on Paire at the net multiple times in game four and the Swiss got triple break point on a netted backhand from the Frenchman. He broke on his first opportunity for a 3-1 lead.
Back-to-back errors from Federer gave Paire the chance to break back. But some erratic play from the world No39 saw him lose both, which resulted in a frustrated racquet smash – the first of many during the match.
Federer saved a third break point to hold for 4-1. During the changeover Paire received a medical timeout for what a right ankle injury he had picked up during the Rotterdam Open two weeks ago.
Federer started waving to his fans while waiting for Paire to finish his treatment, sending the crowd into hysteria.
The world No10 broke again for a 5-1 lead and took the set on 27 minutes with a service winner after a serious of exceptional serve-and-volley points.
Paire double-faulted to fall behind 0-40 in the fifth game of the second and netted a routine forehand to get broken. The 27-year-old didn’t even sit down during the changeover, looking disinterested as he waited at the baseline.
He had a half chance at 30-30 in the next game, but smashed his racquet once again after squandering the opportunity.
Federer held for 4-2 and Paire went on another racquet-smashing spree. He hurled his racquet against a banner, it flew back but thankfully didn’t hit anyone. Paire received a code violation then threw his racquet again as he walked to his bench. He lost the contest soon after.
“I couldn’t play. I had an injury after the (Marin) Cilic match in Rotterdam and the same pain arrived in the first game, I felt it and after I couldn’t move. The match was not how I wanted it to be, but that’s how it is, that’s tennis,” a dejected Paire told Sport360 after the match.
Asked about his potentially dangerous racquet throw in the second set, Paire said: “I was pissed because I couldn’t play, that’s the reason and I broke my racquet. I do what I want on the court, that’s it.”
Erratic on-court behaviour from players has been a point of discussion as of late, especially after Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov accidentally injured umpire Arnaud Gabas when he angrily hit the ball directly at the Frenchman’s face leaving him with a bloody eye. Gabas later required surgery on his eye.
Federer was asked about Paire’s flying racquet on Monday and whether there should be harsher punishments for such antics. The 18-time grand slam champion said: “It was funny, actually. He got lucky.
“No, I think it’s fine. Players know what the consequences are. I don’t know how it can be harsher than to be disqualified, getting a zero point or no prize money. I don’t know how – what, get thrown in jail? I don’t know,” he added jokingly. “I mean, that’s the next step, I guess.
“So the players know what the drill is, what the rules are. He knew that if he smashed one more racquet it would be a point penalty and then it goes into game quickly, and things get really serious and expensive and all that.
“I don’t think the ATP has to revisit that part of the thing, but sure, you have to be careful. When you whack a ball out of the stadiums, you want to be 100 per cent sure you clear everything in the path, even birds and stuff. If you throw the racquet, you want to know how it bounces. And if it’s the unknown, you shouldn’t do it.”
Federer has an off day on Tuesday before playing his second round on Wednesday.
Gael Monfils heaped praise on Mohamed Safwat after the French world No12 was given a run for his money by the Egyptian 199th-ranked wildcard in the Dubai first round on Monday night.
In front of buoyant crowd Monfils fought off Safwat in 80 minutes to claim a 6-4, 6-3 win on the No4 seed’s first Dubai appearance since 2008.
Safwat was making his debut at an ATP 500-level tournament and held his own against a player who was ranked No6 in the world just last month.
“You always expect a tough match, but I wasn’t expecting that he had so much power with his forehand. You know, his forehand was super fast and deep,” said Monfils of the 26-year-old Egyptian, who is the second highest ranked Arab man.
“Wasn’t missing that much. Wasn’t really expecting that he be tough in a long-term, you know, match. I think it was great, actually.
Safwat saved 15 of the 17 break points he faced and could not convert the sole break opportunity he created in the first set but troubled Monfils with his aggressive forehand and fearless tennis.
Monfils enjoyed playing against a rowdy crowd that was mostly supporting his opponent.
“I think they were happy, too, because Mohamed was playing very good tennis, you know, fantastic tennis,” said Monfils, who awaits either Dan Evans or Dustin Brown in the second round.
“For sure he’s pleased about his performance. You know, he had a wildcard and nothing to lose. Well, he played a tough one.”
Safwat was disappointed to lose but says he walks away from his first Dubai centre court experience with several lessons learned.
“It was a new experience for me, it was the first time to play on centre court at an ATP event. He’s a former top-10 player, it was not an easy match,” Safwat told Sport360.
“I didn’t start too well, the atmosphere was new to me. I tried to get into the match. I had a lot of pressure on my own serve but I managed to hold in many games. I was playing point by point.
“It was a lesson for me. I see where I stand now, I can work on the things I’m missing to compete at a higher level. I dropped a bit in the game in which I got broken in the second set. I tried to come back but it was tough to comeback against a player of his calibre.”
Safwat gave credit to the supporters in the stands that made his Dubai debut a memorable one.
“Mentally I was strong except in that game in the second set. I saved three match points but it was just so tough to keep climbing back from 0-40 and 15-40 all the time,” he explained.
“There were a lot of people supporting me, I guess that’s what motivated me even more to fight back in those games when I was down.”
Safwat will next have a training block before heading to the United States and Mexico for some Challengers next month.
Federer sauntered through his opening round match, defeating Benoit Paire 6-1, 6-3 in 54 minutes, in front of a packed house.
It was the first time Federer had stepped onto court since his Australian Open triumph over Rafael Nadal last month.
“I have played here for so many years, seen the tournament grow,” the 35-year-old told assembled media on Monday night.
“Especially after Australia, fans and myself know how special it is for me to be back on the court. It was a nice welcome. Very thankful always.”
Federer is next in action on Wednesday.