There wasn’t much – if anything – Roger Federer could have done wrong in the eyes of more than 6000 fans who flocked to Perth Arena for a special practice session that he requested be open to the public ahead of Mastercard Hopman Cup.
But practically all of those observers would have disagreed when the Swiss laughingly assessed “he felt like an old man” during his first hit on Perth Arena, occurring just hours after arriving from his Dubai training base.
Fortunately Federer was almost certainly joking, with all his customary touch and impressive footwork on show as he hit for over an hour with local player Matt Ebden.
“It’s just good to get the first practice out of the way,” he said in a question and answer session with Tournament Director Paul Kilderry afterwards.
“You get used to the conditions, plus you guys coming out makes it already feel like a match situation, which is going to help me even more for the Australian summer … I’m really happy to be here.”
The smooth session was especially welcome after Federer’s six-month absence from the game, which marked the longest break in a career spanning almost 20 years.
Physically recovered from the knee injury that first arose late last January, Federer appears mentally refreshed too.
During his time away from tennis, he took the opportunity to spend more time with his family and enjoy experiences that typically aren’t possible in a hectic touring schedule.
“Ever since I took the tough decision not to go to the Olympics, the US Open, all the other tournaments this year, I took time for the leg obviously but much more time for the family and we could do some fun things,” he explained.
“And then I just really got stuck into it. Practice this last six weeks has been really difficult, very challenging but I was always very positive and I enjoyed myself.
“I had a great team around me that always supported me throughout and I think the fans as well have always been there for me and they made things actually much less painful.”
With his absence spanning back to July, when he lost a five-set semifinal to Milos Raonic at Wimbledon, Federer is especially pleased that his comeback will occur in Australia.
It’s a nation that has delivered the 17-time Grand Slam champion with many special moments in his career.
“I never had a bad week in this country. You guys know how to create events, you have beautiful volunteers and knowledgeable fans, which makes it so nice to play here,” said Federer, who also pointed to the profound influence that Australian coaches Peter Carter and Tony Roche had in his career.
Federer has competed twice at Mastercard Hopman Cup, teaming with Martina Hingis to deliver Switzerland with the 2001 title and returning to compete with Mirka Vavrinec (now his wife) the following year.
His association with the event actually commenced even earlier, Federer relating that he’d also travelled to Perth as a hitting partner to Ivo Heuberger in 1999.
“I really just liked being here,” he said. “I came from the junior world championships here to Perth so this is my fourth trip (here) I guess.”
Federer concedes that the 15 years since his last Perth appearance is a “long time ago” but the wait only adds to motivation as he teams with Belinda Bencic at Hopman Cup 2017.
At age 35, Federer seems as credentialed as ever to add to his prolific record. As he hit confidently on Perth Arena, many were reminded of the form that had helped him claim victory for Switzerland in 2001.
And as 6000 adoring fans showed, the adage that absence makes hearts grow stronger is especially true for such a superstar as Federer.