Sunscreen dripping from his face, Roger Federer lunged for a lob volley to extend a point before soaring to snap off a smash and seal the opening break of the final set.
On a scorching day, the four-time Australian Open champion launched the Fed-berg era showing life in his legs, sting in his serve, and the good sense to get off the court in less than two hours. Federer won 89 percent of his first-serve points, 18 of 22 trips to net, and denied the only break point he faced in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 dismissal of Australian wild card James Duckworth.
It was a milestone match for Federer, who is contesting his 57th straight Grand Slam tournament—the longest streak of consecutive appearances in the Open era—and first with new coach, Stefan Edberg. Edberg, still sporting the familiar brown leather grip on his Wilson racquet, warmed Federer up while the court-side thermometer surged to sadistic levels.
The 133rd-ranked Aussie didn’t disguise his intentions. Standing several feet to the left of the center stripe when serving to the ad court, Duckworth targeted the Federer backhand return throughout the match. Federer spent the early stages chipping back replies rather than running around and trying to crack forehand returns.
Duckworth’s power is damaging, but his shot selection is dubious. The sturdy Aussie netted a half-volley to give Federer a fifth break point in the opener; the Swiss proceeded to plaster an inside-out forehand to open the court, then thumped an overhead off the bounce, followed by a firm “Come on!” to break for 3-2. Federer later slid his fifth ace wide for triple set point before Duckworth buried a backhand to end the 39-minute first set.
Serving at 2-3, 30-all in the second set, Federer caught a break when Duckworth, in prime position at net, netted a routine backhand volley. Federer capitalized on the error with an ace out wide to hold. A double-fault followed by a forehand into the net gave Federer the break and a 4-3 second-set lead, as he won five of six games to take complete command.
Of course, one match—against an inexperienced opponent playing just his eighth major contest—is too small a sample to gauge the state of Federer’s game. But his footwork was much sharper than it was in the abysmal first set of his Brisbane final loss to Lleyton Hewitt, he served with authority, went after his second serve, and defended with ambition. Federer probably won’t be pleased with his poor break-point conversion rate—he won just four of 17 points—nor some of the shanks that came off his backhand as he continues adjusting to his new, slightly larger, Wilson frame. But given the brutal conditions and the fact he lifted his level as the match progressed, the sweat-soaked Federer had cause to smile after an efficient performance.