Roger Federer put his full array of shots on display in a 6-3, 7-5 win over Alexander Zverev on Wednesday in the second round of the Italian Open, an encouraging performance considering he only decided to play moments before stepping onto the court.
“I was expecting to lose in straight sets today. That was the mindset going in, so to win in straights is actually a really big surprise to me,” said Federer, who has been having problems with his back. “I played cautious, and I only decided after the warmup that I was actually going to play.”
Top-ranked Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and seven-time Rome champion Rafael Nadal also advanced in straight sets on the red clay courts at the Foro Italico.
In women’s action, Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber, fourth-seeded Victoria Azarenka and last week’s Madrid Open winner Simona Halep each lost.
After withdrawing from Madrid with lower back pain, Federer looked sharp from the start against the 44th-ranked Zverev, using his backhand slice drop shot especially well.
“I’m happy I was able to play a full match without any setbacks,” said Federer, who also missed 10 weeks earlier this year after surgery on his left knee to repair a torn meniscus. “I’m coming off a brutal last few months, and I’m just happy to be able to play normal tennis to some extent. … So for me it’s a big day and huge step in the right direction.”
The 19-year-old Zverev, considered a potential future Grand Slam champion, often found himself running down shots wide in the alleys. At one point, the 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) German was pulled so far off the court he ended up in the lap of a line judge — then hugged the official after Federer put away an easy volley.
On the first point of the final game, Federer surprised Zverev by following his second serve to the net and Zverev lost his footing as he attempted to chase down Federer’s volley. Zverev fell to the clay, dirtying his shorts and shirt, and had to go over to his chair to dust himself off.
Still, Federer was impressed with Zverev.
“Clearly he has a big game and nice technique and good attitude and all that,” the 17-time Grand Slam champion said.
Federer will next meet 13th-seeded Dominic Thiem, who beat Joao Sousa of Portugal 6-3, 6-2, but he couldn’t immediately confirm that he would play Thursday.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel tomorrow,” Federer said. “I hope so. But I’m literally going practice after practice. Every 15 minutes I speak to (coaches) Ivan (Ljubicic) or Severin (Luthi) and say, What else can we do?
“It’s baby steps right now. So to even think of tomorrow is already a big ask,” he added.
Back to No. 2 in the rankings this week, Federer is attempting to win this tournament for the first time. It’s his 16th appearance in Rome and he’s a four-time runner-up.
“It would be wonderful to win, but not this year,” Federer said. “I’m too far off.”
Rome is the last major warmup for the French Open, which starts May 22.
Djokovic beat 35-year-old French qualifier Stephane Robert 7-5, 7-5 as he seeks a third straight title in Rome and fourth overall.
Robert unleashed a series of winners followed by wild fist pumps as he broke Djokovic’s serve early in the second set and when Djokovic eventually broke back, the Serb let out a loud demonstrative scream.
Robert hit more than twice as many winners as Djokovic, 33-16, but also committed far more unforced errors, 32-14.
Murray never dropped his serve, hitting seven aces, as he eliminated Kazakh qualifier Mikhail Kukushkin 6-3, 6-3.
Nadal defeated Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-3, 6-3 and will next meet rising Australian player Nick Kyrgios, who beat big-serving Milos Raonic 7-6 (5), 6-3 on the statue-lined Pietrangeli court.
Eugenie Bouchard, the 2014 Wimbledon runner-up, beat the second-seeded Kerber 6-1, 5-7, 7-5; Irina-Camelia Begu, ranked 35th, defeated Azarenka 6-3, 6-2; and last year’s semifinalist Daria Gavrilova eliminated Halep 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 in a match that was temporarily interrupted by rain.
Azarenka said she was still affected by a back injury that prompted her to withdraw in Madrid.
“I thought I was OK and was ready to play and came back, so I’m just disappointed,” Azarenka said. “It’s just unfortunate that I can’t play my best tennis.”
Also, Johanna Konta of Britain upset U.S. Open runner-up Roberta Vinci before the Italian’s home crowd, 6-0, 6-4.