IT IS almost 10 years since Roger Federer lost in the first round of a major tournament anywhere, and never in 14 appearances at the Australian Open. His first sighting each year has become an event in itself. On Tuesday, it was on the screen on Rod Laver Arena as he made his way through the corridors, and it prompted a cheer, and another, louder still, when he manifested in the flesh.
MC Craig Willis again played up the moment, affecting almost to lose his breath as he scrolled through Federer's achievements, occasioning laughter and a third round of applause. Before he had hit a ball in earnest, Federer had had a more rousing reception than some players are accorded in victory.
As per protocol, there was an opponent. Lanky Frenchman Benoit Paire became the 38th different player to meet Federer in an opening round since one last beat him. Paire had never won a match at the Australian Open, but he did break into the top 50 last year, and could have expected a kinder roll of the dice than this. At 196 centimetres, but dental floss thin and rejoicing in the nickname of ''Stalk'', he was well cut out as a fall guy.
Bad luck: Roger Federer consoles Benoit Paire. Photo: Joe Armao
Still, he would have come with a head full of giant-killing dreams. Federer had not played a proper match since last year, preferring exhibitions in South America and an extended holiday. At 31, the same age as creaky old Lleyton Hewitt, he would surely be rusty.
The dream did not outlive the first point of the match, Paire's double fault. His first gesture of despair followed soon afterwards. He started the second set more propitiously, with a pair of aces, but the third slipped away in little more than 20 minutes. The match lasted only a little longer than the first set of Sam Stosur's opening match the previous day.
It was not that Paire was inept, far from it. His reach was long, and his best shots elicited ''oohs'' to match Federer's ''aahs''. It was simply that however good a shot he played, Federer had seen it before, many times over, and that even if it was a winner, it only earned him one point. He knew from the start that he would not have enough of them. Later, Paire said he simply could not read Federer's game in any aspect.
Almost visibly, the rust flaked off Federer. In truth, this match was no more strenuous for him than a practice hit-up with regular partner and lifelong friend Marco Chiudinelli. Once, he was so lulled that, with the court wide open, he clipped the net and had to win the point all over again. Otherwise, it was as if he invited Paire's attack, the better to dust off his many tools of trade.
The crowd grew restless. At one change of ends, it performed a Mexican wave, then delayed the restart by clapping itself, for behaving like sheep. Elsetimes, there came that most stupefyingly dull incantation: ''Let's go, Roger, let's go.'' Australian tennis needs new blood at all levels.
Federer, gent that he is, tries to make these throat-clearings mercifully painless for his opponent, euthanasia rather than a killing. Not at any point on Tuesday did he flaunt his superiority.
Afterwards, he described Paire as ''a very good player, a very good talent'', also ''tricky''. In fact, it was Paire, long since resigned to defeat, who began to take the mickey. First, he attempted a volley between his legs, unsuccessfully.
Then, when succeeding with a challenge to a line call on match point, he raised his arms as if this was his triumph.
Federer secured victory, gave Paire an affectionate pat on the stomach at the net, then left him to his own debriefing; call it a re-Paire. For himself, he said he was satisfied because not until he had tested them could he be certain all the parts of his game were in working order.
A selection of possible opponents in the bottom half of the draw will empathise with Paire, but thank him for nothing: it is almost nine years since Federer has lost in rounds two, three or four of any major.