I think most of us suspected that Roger Federer’s second-round match against former US Open champion Marin Cilic wasn’t going to be as straightforward as his first round. The two have history: they played each other ten times before — twice in Grand Slam finals — and both arrived in Paris a little out of form.
After 2018, Cilic struggled a lot with knee injuries and hadn’t regained his best form ever since. He used to be a top ten player, but these days he’s ranked at 47, and it doesn’t seem like his career is moving upwards at thirty-two years old. Federer is still testing the waters — after two knee surgeries and skipping most of the 2020 season — and trying to get back on form.
Therefore, yesterday’s match was far from spectacular. The two struggled with service games, missed a lot of breakpoints, and had a tough time accepting the umpire’s, at times, very peculiar decisions.
Cilic has started the match sluggishly, lost his serve twice early on, and gifted the first set to Federer (6–2). The second set was the exact opposite. Federer dropped his serve in the second game and started arguing with the umpire over a time violation he received when he went to grab his towel.
If you watch him regularly, there’s one thing Roger rarely does: engaging in arguments with the umpire. Both the violation and the dispute were unnecessary and could’ve been avoidable. Understandably, now there is a COVID-19 protocol the players have to follow. That means the ballboys and ballgirls can’t carry their towels anymore. Apparently, Federer got the violation because he took too long to get to his towel from one side of the court to the other. That disrupted Cilic’s pace and rhythm, even though the Swiss had thirteen seconds left on the time clock when he was ready to face the next serve. Later, he addressed the issue in the press conference and said that it was a misunderstanding on many levels.
As it usually happens after such discourse, Federer lost focus, couldn’t hold his serve, and ended up losing the set to Cilic (6–2).
The real intense, nerve-wracking tennis began in the third set. After the Swiss managed to calm down and concentrate, he broke Cilic’s serve in the third game. But Federer’s serve has been vulnerable and shaky throughout the first three sets, and Marin had taken advantage of that one more time. After that, they went head to head and let the tiebreak decide the crucial third set.
In the tiebreak, Fed had a mini-break and held every single point on his own serve and ended up winning the set after all the struggle (7–6). Losing the decider, Cilic seemed like the player who knew it was all downhill from here. In the fourth, the Swiss broke the Croatian’s serve twice, held himself together in every major rally, and won the final set easily (6–2).
Perhaps not remarkable but an important victory in terms of getting information on where Federer’s level is at at the moment. After his first match, it was in question whether he’ll be able to physically and mentally keep up against a stronger opponent in a battle for the best-of-five.
He certainly did and later said that he surprised himself a little more than he expected. Such a win over an experienced player like Cilic gave him a confidence boost and clarity of what he could achieve in Paris as he goes further. Admittedly, this tournament is a preparation for him to get ready for the grass-court season. However, I think there’s an increasing chance for him to reach possibly the quarter-finals, where he could potentially face Djokovic.
There’s still a lot to work on for strengthening his play, but the opportunities are definitely there — I can see him taking advantage of them as he goes deeper. On Saturday, he’ll face the twenty-seven-year-old Dominik Koepfer, who’s currently ranked at 59. It will be the first time he plays against the German.
P.S.: I’m covering every Roger Federer match at the Roland Garros until he lasts. So, if you want to join in on the discussion or cheer him on, keep an eye out for my next article or just follow me.