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Federer curious to experience reduced crowds on Doha return

After more than a year away, the 20-times Grand Slam champion will get a first taste of what it’s like to play in an almost empty stadium

Roger Federer Cape Town 2020 AI / Reuters / Panoramic

Roger Federer says he is intrigued to discover what it’s like to play in front of a reduced number of fans when he returns to the ATP Tour next week after more than a year out through injury.

The 39-year-old Swiss has not played since last year’s Australian Open, with two knee surgeries delaying his return until the Qatar Exxon Mobile Open in Doha, which begins on Monday.

Federer is used to playing in front of packed crowds but with only 20 percent of the usual fan capacity allowed in Doha due to Covid-19 restrictions, the Swiss said he is not sure how he will feel when he steps out on court for his first match in more than a year, a second-round meeting with either Britain’s Dan Evans or Jeremy Chardy of France.

“I’m actually curious to find out how it’s going to be,” he said on Saturday during an Instagram live question and answer session with children for the tournament. “It’s my first tournament in over a year; I haven’t played in these Covid times, so I hope there will be some atmosphere. I saw some highlights from the women’s tournament and it seemed actually pretty good. But I’m really happy to be back here again. It’s exciting to return here in Qatar.

Important to be mentally flexible

When the tennis Tours were locked down for five months in 2020, the 20-times Grand Slam champion said he could not imagine playing in empty stadiums.

Answering a question on Saturday about mental strength, Federer said it was important for players to be flexible, especially in these difficult times when rules can change overnight.

“For me it’s all about preparing mentally for what’s to come,” he said. “For me, preparing to be in the bubble for the first time, away from my family. Let’s say we are told that crowds cannot be there, you have to be ready for that. Prepare for it, and be flexible.”

Federer will begin the event as the world No 6, his ranking protected by a change to the overall system because of Covid-19. The Swiss said he’d been training on average for two to three hours over the past three weeks and is raring to go.

“I’m very excited to be back,” he said. “I played here for the first time in 2003, it was a great tournament for me already, to learn about the region. I’ve seen the city grow tremendously between then and now.”

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic

Djokovic has made me better

And Federer also had a word for the world No 1 Novak Djokovic, a man who has won 27 of their 50 battles, including their most recent one in the semi-finals in Melbourne in 2020.

“I’ve always enjoyed playing against him, I think we have different styles and we bring out the best in each other,” he said.

“Novak can go into a mode where he’s just not going to miss. He defends very well and then he can play aggressively when he needs to. He has a very good balance, that’s what makes him one of the greatest players ever. It’s been a pleasure to play against him and he’s one of the players who have made me better as well.”

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