Since January 2020, Roger Federer had played only three matches, and none of them were in a Grand Slam. He missed more than a year of tennis, had two knee surgeries, and turned thirty-nine last August. But watching him play yesterday on the Philippe Chatrier court at the French Open, well, he could’ve fooled me.
His first-round match looked like a mix of practice and exhibition game, hitting a vast range of shots with stunning accuracy and the confidence he lacked in recent competitions. It was the first time he actually looked and played like himself. Feeling comfortable on the court, hitting eight aces and forty-eight winners, and eventually bagging the game in three straight sets (6–2, 6–4, 6–3).
What’s more, beyond the sheer numbers and statistics, he seemed truly relaxed and focused. The only expectations he wanted to exceed were the ones he set by himself. And, at this point, the press doesn’t push him much either. There are hardly any ongoing discussions of rivalries with Nadal and Djokovic, no close records waiting to be broken, and no overwhelming pressure to win another slam — at least, not in Paris.
Of course, he’s Roger Federer — the GOAT, the Swiss Maestro, The Magician — so there always will be some basic expectations. But this time around, I don’t think he feels the need to chase after wins at all costs. He said it himself, “I know that I will not win Roland Garros. I know my limitations at the moment. It’s all based and used for the grass-court season. I’ve said it several times, for me, the season really starts on the grass.”
There’s a healthy and freeing self-awareness in that statement. But it’s also the reason why Roger might find more success playing in this tournament than everyone expects from him — including himself.
It’s been two years since Federer reached the semifinals in Paris — where Nadal and the wind destroyed him — and now he just wants to get back on form. Get used to the environment, the rhythm, the pace, and the dynamics of a regular tennis season. In Geneva, the second return after his long break, he just couldn’t find the balance and the right strategy against Pablo Andujar to survive the match. He has made too many mistakes from the baseline and didn’t capitalize on the chances that were clearly there.
Yesterday that wasn’t the case against Istomin, though. He broke the Uzbek’s serve right in the first game and once again later in the first set. In the second, one break was enough to come through, and he managed to break twice again in the third. But what really made Federer look like he was in his prime were the variations of his skill set. He played a vast range: switching back and forehand drop shots, hitting angles with a bombastic forehand, and often coming to the net to finish the point with a solid volley.
Of course, the opponent played a big role in the way Roger was able to showcase his repertoire. Istomin moved slowly with hardly any pace and let Federer play in his comfort zone without facing any significant struggle — Istomin didn’t have a breakpoint in the entire match.
Overall, Federer was happy with his performance but said that he doesn’t know where he stands at the moment. He just hopes that he can do it again against a stronger opponent in the next round. Well, he’ll definitely need to keep up the form because he’s facing Marian Cilic in the second round on Thursday.
There’s no point getting ahead of myself and draw unrealistic conclusions from this first match, but I’m hopeful. Actually, no — I’m excited. It has been too long without Roger — a healthy, solid, ready-to-rumble Federer — and it’s kind of a miracle that he’s still playing majors, especially on clay.
So, I try not to have too high expectations for him here at the Roland Garros. If he can bag three matches — while regaining his confidence and having some fun as well — and reach the fourth round, I think fans will be more than happy.
If not, then see you soon on the grass, maestro.
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.