Roger Federer, without a Grand Slam title for the first time in eight years, had little chance to indicate the likelihood of holding one again as he comfortably negotiated his first encounter since losing the Australian Open title three weeks ago.
Federer needed only 75 minutes to win 6-3, 6-3 against Somdev Devvarman, the world number 79 who had been given a wild card entry with an eye to his popularity with the large Indian ex-patriate population here.
It brought a partisan crowd and a full house which ensured that Federer had extra to overcome to make a successful start to his bid to regain a Dubai Open title he has already won four times.
There was rarely much doubt that he would progress with something to spare, even against an ambitious and improving and so well supported an opponent.
Only when Federer was interviewed on court and asked if his absence of Grand Slam titles meant it was the end of an era, did it became clear that most of the crowd were fans of him too, for they booed the question noisily.
When Federer replied: “The answer is — I am playing here,” it was greeted with great cheers.
“It doesn’t stress me out,” he added.
“I won the tour finals at the end of last year. Novak (Djokovic) was too good at the Australian Open and I can only respect that, and work on my game and hope that’s enough.
“In any case this isn’t about the Grand Slams – my focus is on Dubai.”
Federer made many unforced errors for him — more than 30 — but also produced some inspired moments and served well when it mattered. He broke for 4-2 when Devvarman served a double fault which gave him a hold on the first set, and broke again in the fifth and ninth games of the second set.
Devvarman, a nimble counter-hitter, crafted himself two break points for 3-1 in the second set, but Federer saved the first with a heavy first delivery and the second with a trademark inside-out forehand drive.
He next plays Marcel Granollers of Spain who comfortably beat Dmitry Tursunov, the US-based Russian, and could have a quarterfinal with Ernests Gulbis, a dangerously hard-hitting Latvian who troubled him in Doha a year ago.
Federer’s previous match was the chastening straight sets defeat he endured against Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open.
The Serbian’s first match since winning that Grand Slam title again suggested he is a better all round player than when he won it the first time three years ago.
His smartly taken 6-3, 6-3 win over Michael Llodra also reversed the result of their encounter in the Paris Masters three months ago and illustrated many of the qualities which make Djokovic more dangerous now than he has ever been.
He often hit drives which were superbly deep when they rallied from the baseline, but if Llodra serve-volleyed instead or tried to play his way forward, the in-form champion quite often found ways to pass him.
“I didn’t know how I’m going to start the tournament after three weeks of not playing an official match. So I have to say I’m happy with the performance today,” Djokovic said.
It created a feeling that Djokovic’s self-belief is stronger now than it has ever been, and that he begins his bid to win this title a third time in a row as equal unofficial favourite with the top seeded Federer.