Unlike when Federer plays fellow top ATP World Tour stars, such as Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, during the match's biggest moments, Federer had little idea what Donskoy would attempt.
“I just didn't know Donskoy. So many times I just didn't know what his patterns were. I didn't know what his preferences are. If he does hit a big forehand down the line, is that normal or is that just right now? Is he going to do that on big shots, big points or not?” Federer said after his shocking loss at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. “All that stuff got me a little bit tense, and I could never quite play freely, which is quite surprising, considering how I played in Australia.”
The seven-time Dubai champion twice found himself in commanding position against Donskoy, who, at No. 116, had to qualify for the ATP World Tour 500 tournament. The 35-year-old Swiss held match points at 6/4 and 7/6 in the second set tie-break and led the third-set tie-break 5/2.
But no deficit was too big for the 26-year-old Moscow native, who went on to win 3-6, 7-6(7), 7-6(5). Donskoy had previously been 0-6 against Top 10 players, according to the FedEx ATP Performance Zone, and had been 19-26 for his career in tie-breaks.
“I had my chances. I should somehow close it out. Don't know how it got away, but he did very well. It's a rough one, for sure,” Federer said. “But tennis is this way. Margins are small. [A] fast court like here, you can't find much rhythm. Next thing you know, you're struggling.”
The loss is Federer's first on the 2017 season. He started the year reeling off seven consecutive matches to win the Australian Open title, his 18th Grand Slam crown. In Melbourne, Federer had been bothered by a leg injury but he said on Wednesday that he's fully recovered. He also shrugged off any other injury worries.
“I just think it's still the beginning of the comeback and [I] have to take the positives out of playing again at a tournament where I feel I'm quite healthy and I'm happy I got over the injury I sustained at the Australian Open,” Federer said. “I just never really got going tonight and sort of felt heavy. But, look, those matches happen frequently, where you just have to somehow find a way to come through. Tonight I just didn't. I was convinced that if I came through tonight I was going to feel better tomorrow. It's OK.”
Federer will take the court next at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, which starts 9 March. The right-hander will be going for his fifth title at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament.