Roger Federer relied on his Grand Slam experience during the most important points to beat Noah Rubin 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (3) on Wednesday, maintaining his record of never failing to reach the third round at the 18 Australian Opens he’s contested.
After back-to-back wins over qualifiers, the degree of difficulty in his comeback from a six-month injury lay-off will increase exponentially. Next up he faces former Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych, who had a 6-3, 7-6 (6), 6-2 win over Ryan Harrison.
Also looming, potentially, is Kei Nishikori, the 2014 US Open finalist, who set up a third-round match against Lukas Lacko with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 win over Jeremy Chardy.
Federer didn’t play after his semi-final exit at Wimbledon last year, resting his injured left knee. He returned at the Hopman Cup exhibition in Perth this month, and opened at Melbourne Park with a straight-sets win over another 35-year-old veteran, Jurgen Melzer.
Against Rubin, a 20-year-old qualifier and 2014 Wimbledon junior champion, the 17-time Grand Slam winner played the big points like the old pro that he is.
He broke Rubin’s serve in the 12th game of the first set, dominated the second. Rubin had his chances in the third set, breaking Federer in the second game and having two set points on the Swiss star’s serve when he led 5-2.
But Federer upped the tempo, winning four of the last five games to force a tiebreaker, which he dominated. Rubin moved well from the baseline, and hit 11 forehand winners, but was only able to convert one of his six break-point chances.
“I definitely got lucky winning that third set. He had a couple of set points on my serve,” Federer said. There were, “a lot of difficult points, which is what I need.”
US Open champion Stan Wawrinka advanced 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 over Steve Johnson, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat Dusan Lajovic 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.
John Isner, the highest-seeded US player in the men’s draw, won the first two sets before losing to Mischa Zverev 6-7 (4), 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-6 (7), 9-7, following Johnson, Rubin and Harrison out in the second round. In a bright spot for the Americans, Sam Querrey advanced with a 7-6 (5), 6-0, 6-1 win over Australian wild-card entry Alex De Minaur.
Defending champion Angelique Kerber celebrated her 29th birthday with a 6-2, 6-7 (3), 6-2 second-round win over Carina Witthoeft.
The crowd sang her “Happy Birthday,” although she wasn’t entirely on song. The No. 1-ranked Kerber angrily swiped her racket in the second set in a burst of frustration that momentarily threw her off her game.
She had two double-faults in the tiebreaker, as Witthoeft leveled the match, but regained control in the third.
Kerber planned to celebrate over dinner, then get back to work before Friday’s third-round match against Kristyna Pliskova, who beat Irina-Camelia Begu 6-4, 7-6 (8). Pliskova’s twin sister, Karolina, lost the US Open final to Kerber.
“I’m always playing on my birthday - always in Australia,” said Kerber, who had her major breakthrough here last year. “I feel like at home here.”
Speaking of age, Venus Williams had to field questions about getting older after an energetic performance in her 6-3, 6-2 win over Stefanie Voegele.
The 36-year-old, seven-time major winner played the first of her record 73 Grand Slam tournaments at the French Open in 1997.
“It’s an honor and privilege to start that young,” she added, laughing, “and play this old.”
Venus and Serena Williams, who have won 14 major doubles titles together, withdrew from a scheduled first-round doubles match later on Wednesday, citing an injury to Venus’ right elbow.
In her next singles match, Venus will play Duan Yingying, who beat Varvara Lepchenko 6-1, 3-6, 10-8. In other third-round matches, two-time major winner Svetlana Kuznetsova will meet former No. 1-ranked Jelena Jankovic, who had a 6-3, 6-4 win over Julia Goerges, and Elina Svitolina will take on Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Eugenie Bouchard, who reached the semi-finals here and the Wimbledon final in 2014, had a 7-6 (5), 6-2 win over Peng Shuai.