Roger Federer, overshadowed? For one night, it really did happen.
On the first night session of the 2019 Australian Open, Federer had his typical center-court assignment inside Rod Laver Arena as he tried to defend his 2018 championship. Normally, this would be the big story as a Melbourne evening melted into a picture-perfect sunset. Yet, this was no normal Day 1 at a major. Andy Murray, who announced his impending retirement last week, battled his heart out elsewhere in the Melbourne Park tennis complex. He scrambled and struggled and surged and sweated inside Melbourne Arena in a match against Roberto Bautista Agut which exceeded four hours in length.
Murray, not Federer, was the focus of the tennis world on this night, and it was Federer’s job to keep it that way. After all, Federer would make bigger headlines than Murray on this night only if he did one thing: Lose.
Federer had no plans to do that, and his Australian Open odds are improving, but much as Murray had a rough draw in the form of RBA, Federer did not have an especially easy round-of-128 draw in his own right.
Denis Istomin is more talented than dozens of other players Federer could have faced in round one of this Australian Open. He memorably fought Andy Murray at the U.S. Open in 2013, losing in four sets in the fourth round. Istomin made an imprint at the Australian Open two years ago, when he knocked Novak Djokovic out of the tournament in round two.
Istomin is dangerous. Like so many other tennis players, his flaws aren’t found in strokes, but in his ability to handle high-pressure scoreboard situations. Istomin played Federer on even terms in the first 10 games of their 2012 Olympic round-of-16 match at Wimbledon, before Federer — typically — mastered the moment in the final two games of that first set. Istomin just as typically faltered at the end of the first set. Federer won, 7-5, 6-3, but the force of Istomin’s game was not lost upon Federer or anyone else who was watching.
Istomin can simply crack the stuffing out of a tennis ball. This was not a simple assignment for Fed as he began his campaign in Melbourne.
Yet, as with so many other things Federer does in tennis, he made a potentially complicated match look relatively normal. He was never pushed to an 11th game of a set in a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win. He took a hard hitter on the other side of the net and pulled him out of his strike zone with ample spin. Istomin had to work harder to time the ball just right, and that imbalance in Istomin’s game set the tone for what Federer wanted to achieve. This was not a blowout if measured by points won — Federer 55 percent, Istomin 45 — but Federer established early leads in each set and, unlike a good portion of the latter stages of the 2018 season, maintained those leads instead of getting broken back.
This was, in short, a first indication that early-2019 Federer is not late-2018 Federer… and therefore a legitimate reason to think he can do something substantial at this tournament.
Overshadowed? Roger Federer was eclipsed by Andy Murray on the first night of the Australian Open. Federer, though, handled that reality with the calm and measured poise which has defined him for a very long time.