“This year hasn’t been so tough yet – last year was tough,” Federer said after 2016 was blighted by a torn meniscus in his left knee. “It was a long road, but I’ve made it. I’m in the draw and it’s a beautiful thing. Any match is a good match, even if I’d lost today, because I’m back on the court.”
In many ways, it was the ideal test for Federer, seeded No.17 on his Grand Slam return. Melzer is a wily and well-drilled left-hander who allowed him to test his attacking and defensive game over four sets – hardly your typical first-round showdown between seed and qualifier.
Then again, Melzer is no typical qualifier. The former world No.8 played in a Grand Slam semifinal as recently as 2010, stunning Novak Djokovic in five sets in the French Open quarters before losing to Rafael Nadal. He had even won his last match against Federer, at Monte-Carlo in 2011.
“I was expecting to play a young guy in the first round because there were a lot of young guys qualifying,” Federer said. “To play Jurgen was cool. We know each other since we were 16. We used to play doubles together at the Orange Bowl back at Flamingo Park in Miami. We go way back.”
It’s been a long road back for fellow 35-year-old Melzer – three months Federer’s senior – after surgery to his left shoulder in late 2015. The Austrian played just four Tour events last year, and was the world No.550 as recently as September. On Monday night against Federer he made a mockery of such numbers, leading the first set and storming back in the second to push the 17-time Grand Slam champion through four sets.
Federer’s Grand Slam return got off to an inauspicious start, with four framed shots in the opening game as dusk set in over Rod Laver Arena. As his errors piled up, Melzer built on a good start, securing a 4-2 lead with an arrowed backhand pass.
With that, Federer moved up a gear, rattling through seven of the next eight games and sealing the first set with an ace. And then, just as suddenly, the gears began grinding once more. Leading 3-1 in the second, his first serve deserted him – his conversion rate dropped to 56 per cent – and Melzer capitalised, running away with the second set.
Later, Federer conceded he was perhaps guilty of over-thinking his first five-set match in six months. “I realised it was just consuming me,” he said. “It goes in waves – say, Okay, I'm going to focus right here, then later I'm going to try to play a bit more relaxed. Just calm down a bit, try to play more freely. I think that then worked much better.
“I almost felt like I had to pace myself. I didn't want to overthink every play. That was not the idea, to come here and go mental about every point. It's already great to just be here, trying to play with the guys.”
Federer regrouped at the start of the third, and with a clear mind on a clear night, those trademark moments of magic broke through. Sharpening up on return, time and again he went behind the Austrian to the delight of the crowd and the benefit of the scoreboard, mixed up his net game and opened his shoulders to end the match with 46 winners.
If the third set was good, the fourth was better, Federer bringing up match point with a lob over Melzer that the Austrian tweenered into the tramlines before a looping forehand landed wide to end the contest after two hours and five minutes.
Up next for Federer is American 20-year-old Noah Rubin, who beat fellow American qualifier Bjorn Fratangelo in five sets.
“I know he's a baseliner,” said the Swiss, who admitted he knew little about the former Wimbledon junior champion. “He makes a lot of shots. I guess it's not a bad thing for me. I know it's probably more on my racquet rather than playing a big server.”