PARIS — The French Open’s official program heralded his return, although Sunday’s ticket holders at Roland Garros were aware of their fortuitous timing. “Roger Federer Retour sur Terre,” it read, proclaiming with multilayered meaning the Swiss champion’s “return to Earth.”
Sunday marked Federer’s first match at the French Open in four years, after being sidelined by injury in 2016 and then skipping the event in 2017 and 2018 to focus on his grass-court preparation for Wimbledon.
On another level, the “terre” to which Federer returned is the tournament’s iconic red clay, essentially crushed brick, which is known in France as “terre battue.” Moreover, since Federer made his Grand Slam debut at the French Open 20 years ago, when he was a 17-year-old phenom with shoulder-length hair, there always has been something otherworldly about his game, marked by a grace bordering on weightlessness.
So when Federer strode on to Philippe Chatrier Court on Sunday afternoon, he was greeted with a standing ovation, cheers and chants of “Roger! Roger!” by a capacity crowd that hailed him as equal parts long-lost love and conquering hero.
Federer entered the 2019 French Open not as a swan song to a brilliant career. At 37, he has given no indication that his retirement is at hand. Nor was there anything deeply calculated about it, Federer explained after breezing past Italy’s Lorenzo Sonego, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4, and into the second round, summing up his decision to gird for the clay-court season as being “in the mood” and realizing, 10 weeks shy of his 38th birthday, “I’m not getting any younger.”
Federer enters this French Open as the No. 3 seed and every bit a contender, although 11-time champion Rafael Nadal looms in his half of the draw and top seed Novak Djokovic potentially awaits in the final.
But in a rare twist, Federer, who boasts a men’s record 20 Grand Slam singles titles, launches into the season’s second major without the weight of expectation. He has played just five clay-court matches in the past three years, all of them last month, reaching the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome, where he bowed out, largely as a precaution, with a niggling leg injury. And he has won the French Open just once, in 2009, the year Nadal was ousted in the fourth round by Robin Soderling.
Speaking to reporters after Sunday’s first-round victory, Federer said he was enjoying competing without great expectations, given his extended layoff from clay-court tennis. He said he found it relaxing, for a change, yet remains quite serious about undertaking the challenge.
“This is not a show I’m playing,” Federer said. “This is the truth: I don’t know how far I can go in the event.”
Against Sonego, Federer accomplished the first goal he set for himself: avoid an arduous, early-round test. He needed just 101 minutes to dispatch Sonego, a wiry, bouncy 24-year-old who served bigger, hit harder and emoted more theatrically than the supremely composed Swiss.
For all the impressive components of Sonego’s game, particularly on clay, it takes something far more to defeat champions such as Federer and Nadal. Explained the precocious Stefanos Tsitsipas, 20, who has beaten both Federer and Nadal, it requires supreme concentration, tenacity and smarts — on top of tennis skill.
“I know that with [Federer and Nadal], I have to be twice more focused and not give points away,” said Tsitsipas, seeded sixth and also a straight-sets victor Sunday. “They control the court so well. They know what they’re doing; they know where they’re playing, so everything [depends on] these small details. . . . They don’t overplay, don’t do crazy things.”
Federer’s statistics Sunday attested to the insight. He broke Sonego’s serve five times and hit 36 winners to just 13 unforced errors. Then there were the elements of Federer’s game that aren’t reflected by statistics — the devilish array of strokes and impeccable footwork.
In the first set, Federer delivered the deft one-two punch of a wicked drop shot on a service return followed by a blistering cross-court winner.
In the second set, he flicked another drop shot from behind the baseline that was slathered in so much spin, it plopped just on the other side of the net and took a near-90-degree turn left out of the court.
Throughout rallies in between, Federer drove forehands deep and peppered the court with every variety of one-handed backhands — slices, topspin loopers and flat blasts.
It was a calculated attempt to disrupt his opponent’s hard-hitting rhythm, Federer explained, while keeping himself engaged and entertained.
“It’s very pleasant for me to do a drop shot or a passing shot,” he said with a smile.
The Italian countered gamely, but as the decisive third set crept to its conclusion, he could do little more than look to his water bottle and stash of bananas for sustenance on changeovers and gesture to his box with flapping arms and an expression that asked, “What more can I do?”