Roger Federer booked his spot in the second round of the Halle Open by beating Ilya Ivashka in straight sets in his first match of the year on grass, but will need to up his levels to defend his title and also to hold any realistic ambition of a Wimbledon triumph next month. Federer had three match points saved before eventually winning the match but didn’t hit his best, hitting less winners than Ivashka and also racking up 26 unforced errors.
The Swiss icon’s first match since withdrawing from the French Open earlier this month however still saw him come out on top 7-6 (7-4), 7-5 in an empty OWL Arena in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Federer, who is in Germany as he builds up towards Wimbledon later this month, as a result continues his chase of a record-extending 11th crown at the ATP Tour 500 Series event and has now gone 69-7 overall at the tournament.
The 39-year-old, who turns 40 next month, is searching for the 20th grass-court title of his career and harbours outside hopes of winning a record 21st Grand Slam at Wimbledon in a few weeks’ time.
But Federer will need to improve his performances if he is to succeed at SW19, where world No 1 Novak Djokovic will be the big favourite after beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in an absorbing French Open final on Sunday to move on to 19 Slams.
Federer was not broken once by Ivashka in their first round match in Halle and was strong on serve throughout, moving well to combat the world No 90’s return.
But Federer also by contrast struggled returning the qualifier’s serve in both sets, only breaking Ivashka in the decisive final match.
The tennis legend also had a chance to break Ivashka at 5-4 in the second set and had one match point, but his opponent – whose childhood hero was Federer himself – responded well to hold.
Ivashka then denied another two match points at 6-5 in the second set before failing to clear the net with a forehand as he was broken for the first time to end the match after one hour and 34 minutes.
As a result, 10-time Halle champion Federer booked his spot in round two, where he will face either Canadian teenager Felix Auger Aliassime or Poland’s Hubert Hurkacz.
First seed Daniil Medvedev and third seed Alexander Zverev are in the same half of the Halle Open draw as Federer and both play on Tuesday.
“So yes, it’s on [Djokovic winning his 20th Slam] and the way he looks, he looks young, he looks so fresh at the end, he looks scary good and motivated.”
Djokovic meanwhile said: “I never thought it was a mission impossible to reach the Grand Slams of these guys [Federer and Nadal].
“I mean, I’m not there, but it’s one less. But they are still playing. Obviously they’re playing great, especially Rafa with his level. We all have still opportunities at Wimbledon, all the other slams.
“You have four slams a year, so we’re all competing for this amazing achievement and amazing trophies. I’ll keep on going. I’ll keep on chasing.”
The Halle Open is Federer’s first and only pre-Wimbledon warm-up event. Should he go all the way to the final, the eight-time SW19 winner will then get eight days to prepare for the grass Grand Slam.