IT HAS been many a long year since Roger Federer was little more than an afterthought at a grand slam tournament.
The old GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) has been mopping up the silverware with mindboggling regularity since 2003 but as the French Open opened for business yesterday, he was all but forgotten.
All the talk leading into the event has been about Rafael Nadal – can he win his eighth title in Paris? Can he extend his comeback run to nine consecutive finals since February and collect his seventh trophy of the season? – and Novak Djokovic. The world No 1 has been showing signs of blind panic as he attempts to complete his career Grand Slam and prefaced his opening press conference with a request for no questions about the draw. He simply doesn’t want to think about it which sounds for all the world as if he is as nervous as a kitten this year.
Meanwhile, the mighty Federer has been going about his business quietly and efficiently and launched his bid for a second Roland Garros title yesterday with a simple 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 win over Pablo Carreno Busta.
The Spaniard normally plies his trade on the Futures circuit, the bottom rung of the professional ladder, and there he is remarkably successful. He won seven titles at that level in the first three months of the year, five of them on clay, but taking on a GOAT on the main show court was beyond him. Busta tried his best but he was busted before teatime.
“I felt good,” Federer said. “I thought it was a good match for me. He’s played that many matches and won a lot this year. That really helps your confidence. And he’s played a lot of matches on clay, in comparison with me; that I knew it could be tricky if I don’t sustain a certain level of play and certain aggressiveness, get caught up maybe in long rallies, maybe what he’s looking for. Overall, I thought I did well on the serve, on the return, movement‑wise, as well. So clearly I’m very pleased.”
The only slight concern was Federer’s fitness. He has been managing a back problem for several years now and took a seven-week break after the Indian Wells tournament in March to let it rest and recover. Playing in the unseasonably cold conditions yesterday, he nipped off court after only three games in order to a put a vest on and was clearly doing everything he could to keep his ageing joints as warm as possible.
As for how he is regarded these days, Federer does not care. Provided he can keep winning matches, he will happily let everyone else worry about his chances.
“Am I a favourite or not?” Federer said. “I don’t care, because it doesn’t give me any more opportunities to win the tournament. So you want to remain focused, calm, focused on what you want to do, and then let the storm go by. I’m not focused on what journalists say.”
Serena Williams was focused on just one thing yesterday and that was winning. She sped into the second round in just 51 minutes and had she not carelessly dropped a game in the second set – a minor blemish on her otherwise perfect record for the day – she might have been back in the warmth and comfort of the locker room sooner. As it was, she extended her unbeaten run to 25 consecutive matches with a 6-0, 6-1 pasting of Anna Tatishvili.
A year ago, Williams waltzed into Paris as the world No 5, the champion of Charleston and Madrid and a semi-finalist in Rome and, in theory, with her clay court game in good nick. And she was promptly walloped in the first round by Virginie Razzano, then the world No 111. Coming back to Roland Garros this time, she was taking nothing for granted and looking grim and determined, she got her campaign off to a flying start.
“I was definitely nervous,” she said. “I have to say I’m always a little nervous going into first‑round matches at slams. But for the most part, I felt pretty safe and felt good about my game and that if I can just do what I do in practice, I’ll be okay. But like I can say from last year, you never really know what’s going to happen or what can happen.”
Looking back, that surprise defeat last summer was probably the best thing that could have happened to Williams. Shocked and stunned, she called Patrick Mouratoglou for advice and help. The French coach clearly worked some form of magic as she has only lost four matches since. Wimbledon, the Olympics and the US Open were soon gathered in and she regained her No 1 ranking in February. Coming back to Paris, she is the overwhelming favourite for the title.