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Roger Federer unsure of Rome status despite straight-sets win

Roger Federer had few issues in his Rome Masters opener, but is unsure of his status moving forward. Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

On the first point of the final game Wednesday in Rome, Roger Federer had German Alexander Zverev scrambling along the baseline. Trying to run down a forehand to the open court, the teenager went down and came up filthy, his back and behind covered with dark red clay.

Federer, of course, was pristine. Even his maroon socks had little trace of the dirt when the last ball, an errant backhand from the 19-year-old, was struck. It was a 6-3, 7-5 victory for Federer -- and a huge relief for his many, many fans after he pulled out of Madrid last week with a balky back.

And yet, afterward, Federer surprised reporters by saying he might be one and done in Rome.

"I was expecting to lose in straight sets today," Federer explained. "That was the mindset going in, so to win in straights is actually a really big surprise to me.

"I don't know how I'm going to feel tomorrow. So, yeah, I mean I hope [I'm going to play a second match]. It's baby steps right now, So to even think of tomorrow is already a big ask."

He smiled when he said it, so it was hard to know what he was really thinking.

The difficult road ahead, perhaps?

In theory, Federer would play No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic, a four-time champion in Rome, or Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. But now that's a monstrous "if."

Federer must first pronounce himself fit, then get through another prodigy, 22-year-old Dominic Thiem, in the round of 16. Even if he beats the No. 13 seed, his reward could well be No. 6 seed Kei Nishikori, who lost to Djokovic in the Miami final, the Madrid semifinals and to Nadal in the Barcelona final.

On this day, anyway, Federer was more than solid in his 2016 debut at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia. It was over in 87 minutes, and Federer was his cat-like self, dancing around his backhand like it was 2005.

Still, Federer didn't sound optimistic about his chances in Rome, even if he decides to play Thursday. When asked about his thoughts on winning this event for the first time, he succinctly replied: "It would be wonderful to win, but not this year."

Zverev, who has been among the revelations of 2016, is 6-foot-6 and hits the ball really hard. He beat Grigor Dimitrov in the first round and finds himself ranked No. 44 among ATP World Tour players. Zverev is a more-than-respectable 17-12 for the year, winning three matches in both Indian Wells and Munich, but there's a learning curve ahead. He's 0-8 against top-10 players in his brief career, including Nadal, Andy Murray and now, Federer.

"Clearly, [Zverev] is very talented and expects a lot of himself, center court match against someone he has looked up to, from what I heard," Federer said. "So it never was going to be simple just to come out and just to play the best match possible."

It's not easy being a 34-year-old tennis professional -- ask Serena Williams about that.

Federer is the same (relatively ancient) age, and his 17 Grand Slam singles titles do not leave him immune to the ravages of time.

After enjoying a celebrated career largely free of injury, Federer has come up with some nicks and niggles this year. He missed four tournaments earlier this year, including Indian Wells and Miami, after minor knee surgery. After reaching the quarterfinals at Monte Carlo -- a tournament he originally planned to skip -- his sometimes cranky back forced him out of Madrid.

"Looking ahead for next few weeks, regardless if I'm going to play tomorrow or not, this was something I feel like I needed to do to get a sense of where I'm at," Federer said. "It would have been easy not to play and then just be unsure how I was going to feel in Paris.

"So at some point, you have to go out there and see how it feels, and I'm happy I was able to play a full match without any setbacks."

A day after Williams made a triumphant return from a brief sabbatical in Rome, Federer did the same.

Teenagers are often confused, and Zverev was no different. He likes to blast from the baseline, but Federer diffused his power with a variety of clever drop shots. In the end, the Swiss champion converted three break points, two more than Zverev.

Federer, based largely on a successful 2015, finds himself the No. 2-ranked player behind Djokovic. He lost to Djokovic in the semifinals at the Australian Open and fell to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals at Monte Carlo. Rome is only his fourth event of the year.

Djokovic is in the midst of a torrid streak reminiscent of Federer's past dominance. The Serb has won four of the five previous majors -- and a remarkable 10 of the past 13 ATP Masters 1000 events he's played. Wednesday, he followed Federer on Center Court and laid down a gnarly 7-5, 7-5 victory over French qualifier Stephane Robert.

Federer's performance, despite, his cautionary attitude, should serve him well going forward. Certainly, that's the hope of Stefan Edberg, who was no doubt was among those exhaling after Federer was forced to step out of the draw in Madrid. Edberg is a six-time Grand Slam champion who coached Federer in 2014 and 2015.

"He's had that [back] on and off," Edberg said last week from his London home. "Obviously, it's a little bit of a challenge when you haven't played in few months. As long as he gets back soon, he'll be OK. French Open is tougher for him with less preparation. But Wimbledon, he should be good."

The short-term question that looms now: Will he be good enough on Thursday?