Roger Federer’s comeback from injury struck its first hurdle on Wednesday when he was beaten by teenager Alexander Zverev at the mixed teams Hopman Cup in Perth.
In one of the highest quality singles matches ever seen in the 29-year history of the event, Federer showed plenty of the class which has won him a record 17 Grand Slams, but couldn’t quite hold off the bold 19-year-old German.
He was left to rue his failure to serve out the first set when leading 5-3 as Zverev took a match ultimately decided by three tie-breakers, 7-6 (7/1), 6-7 (4/7), 7-6 (7/4) in two hours and 30 minutes.
In the end, two booming first serves from Zverev, the first teenager to make the top 20 since Novak Djokovic in 2006, closed out the match in front of a record Perth tennis crowd of 13,785.
It was Zverev’s second straight win over the Swiss champ, having beaten him in Germany last June, and the result also mirrored that of an unofficial match on the practice court on New Year’s Eve.
Federer was upbeat despite his defeat to a player he believes will be a star for the next decade.
“It was good to play for two and a half hours,” he said.
“Sasha (Zverev) can serve big and showed what he can do, but I was happy how I hung around and I had some really good moments.
“As long as I am injury free and feeling good.”
It was only the 35-year-old’s second match since a six-month layoff due to knee and back injuries following his win over England’s Dan Evans on Monday.
But Federer – who is out of the top 10 for the first time since late 2002 – said he was on the right track for the upcoming Australian Open.
“I am very happy, I have played five good sets so far,” he said.
“I am very pleased, practice has gone great, the matches have been a lot of fun and I am playing good tennis.”
Federer lamented his inability to serve out the first set and a subsequent poor tie-breaker.
The veteran made a shaky start to the tie-breaker with uncharacteristic successive double faults, and the teenager pounced on the opportunity to claim the first set.
The second set saw both players holding serve easily, with Federer barely challenged on serve until Zverev threatened in the 12th game, when leading 6-5.
At 30-all, Zverev lobbed over Federer at the net and had the ball dropped in instead of just floating long it would have been match point.
The pair went to another tie-breaker and this time it was Federer that took the honours to level the match and set up a thrilling final set.