It is not often that the fiercely demanding Roland Garros public welcome a foreigner back as one of their own, but then Roger Federer is no ordinary foreigner.
The mighty Swiss eased his way into the French Open with an apparently effortless 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 win over Lorenzo Sonego, the world No 73 from Italy, yesterday. It was not a masterclass – Sonego did not have the wherewithal to make Federer play very well – but it was the hero’s return the French fans had been waiting for; the one they thought they might never see.
The Parisians had seen neither hide nor hair of Federer since 2015 thanks to a combination of injury (a bad back and a sore knee in 2016) and a lack of enthusiasm ever since – he chose to skip the clay court season for the past two years in order to prepare fully for the grass and Wimbledon. But now he was back and the crowd loved him for it.
Poor Sonego never stood a chance. He walked on court and people clapped politely; Federer walked on court and the crowd rose as one to give him a standing ovation. Then again, Federer was bringing 20 grand slam titles, one French Open title and 101 titles in all to the table while Sonego has yet to reach a final of any description. But to be fair to the Italian, he has only been a professional for the past year; Federer has 20 years and more than a little magic in his racket on him.
Not that Federer is expecting to walk away with the silverware in two weeks’ time but he is rather looking forward to playing without pressure or expectation in the coming rounds.
“It’s nice to be an outsider,” he said. “That’s how I feel, anyhow. I like that approach for me also once in a while. It relaxes you on the bigger points maybe, or it relaxes you subconsciously as you walk through the grounds and go to practice and go to the press room.
“This is not a show I’m putting on. This is the truth. I really don’t know how far I can go in this event, and I am very happy with my first round. It was a really good performance, I thought, from my side for not having played here for as long as I did.”
Federer, though, knows life will not be so easy from here on in. He is seeded to meet Stefanos Tsitsipas, pictured, in the quarter-finals (provided the Greek can get past Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round) and the world No 6 opened his account with a remarkably straightforward 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 win over Maximilian Marterer of Germany. All things considered, Tsitsipas was extremely pleased with his day’s work. An all-court player who loves to attack, the slow clay is not his surface of choice but he coped well enough yesterday.
“I’m very satisfied,” he said. “I was playing really well the first two sets of the match. Better than I thought I would.”
But there is still room for improvement, especially if he wants to match his results in the first grand slam of the year: he beat Federer in the fourth round at the Australian Open on his way to a semi-final finish.
First round matches and opening days of major events can be a bit nerve-wracking but nothing compares to playing the big boys at the sharp end of the big tournaments.
“I know that with them I have to be twice more focused and not give points away,” Tsitsipas said. “They control the court so well. They know what they’re doing. They know where they’re playing, so everything is actually counted on these small details.
“I have seen the difference when I play the rest of the guys and them. They don’t overplay, don’t do crazy things. But they play so right, and they always actually are confident with themselves, with anything they are doing. I think that’s the difference that I have seen.”
Federer was playing “right” yesterday and if he is still here next week for the quarter-finals, he may well have revised his assessment of his chances.
Federer is back and the French never want him to leave.
l Last year’s semi-finalist, Italian 16th seed Marco Cecchinato, was a first-round casualty, losing 2-6 6-7 (6) 6-4 6-2 6-4 to veteran Frenchman Nicolas Mahut.
Cecchinato, who stunned Novak Djokovic in the last eight 12 months ago, had led by two sets to love but 37-year-old wild card Mahut fought back to give the new garden court Simonne Mathieu its first classic match.