Even at some of the lower points in his career, Roger Federer has rarely entered a grand slam without at least leaving the door slightly ajar for the possibility of a magical outcome. But these are unique times as he continues to return from two knee surgeries not far from his 40th birthday and Roland Garros appeared on the horizon this month, he was unusually frank: “Roland Garros is not the goal,” he said. “The goal is the grass.”
For as long as he is in Paris, though, that does not mean that he cannot have fun. On Monday, Federer returned to grand slam competition for the first time since the 2020 Australian Open 487 days ago and he finally looked like he was enjoying himself on court as he dismantled Denis Istomin 6-2 6-4 6-3 to move into the second round.
Even against No. 204 Istomin, a qualifier and the lowest-ranked player Federer has faced in his four matches since his return, every win is positive reinforcement in the midst of a comeback. Thus, the freedom Federer played with over the swift 93-minute win marked a clear step forward.
This comeback has already had its obstacles. After a hopeful return at the Qatar Open in March, losing in his second match to eventual champion Nikoloz Basilashvili, Federer did not resurface until two weeks ago in Geneva where he lost in the first round to No 75 Pablo Andujar after leading by a break in the final set. Afterwards, his frustration was palpable and he felt that his training was not translating to his match.
Monday was an entirely different sensation: “I just felt overall much clearer, much better,” he said. “Clearly also maybe the type of opponent allowed me to have many different ways to win the point. I knew if I came to the net, that was an option. Hitting a drop shot was always an option. Taking the ball early was an option.”
With minimal pressure applied by Istomin, Federer was in control of the majority of exchanges and he demonstrated his confidence from the opening game by executing the first in an array of drop shots throughout the match. Federer looked comfortable in every part of his game – he confidently moved to the net when he could and he controlled the match with his forehand.
The enduring question for Federer upon his return was how his two knee surgeries will affect his mobility, but his movement has been solid. Against Istomin, he defended well into both corners and he remained extremely agile in the drop shot exchanges close to the net. Towards the end of the third set, Federer chased down a drop shot and then lob before attempting an exhibition-style tweener. He very nearly went viral in his first grand slam match back.
In his press conference in the evening, Federer concluded by noting that one of his obstacles right now is as simple as growing accustomed to the minutiae of competition once more: “I think getting used to tournament and match rhythm again, the whole thing with the towels there, the shot clock there, everything that goes with it,” he said. “I don’t know, I really felt like I didn’t find the rhythm. I think the biggest difference for me was in Geneva, now looking back, is that I feel like you play a lot of points very quickly. I think that’s what got me at the end. I rarely took the extra two, three, four, five seconds I usually take by getting the towel or waiting for the crowd.”
Federer will face former US Open champion Marin Cilic in the second round, a match-up that last took place in the 2018 Australian Open final. Meanwhile, second seed Daniil Medvedev won his first ever match at Roland Garros with a comfortable 6-3 6-3 7-5 victory over Alexander Bublik. Medvedev, who is well known for his intense, vocal dislike of clay, described his prospects in far more positive terms and compared the conditions to hard courts.
“I feel really hopeful,” he said. “As I say, you could see it today in the match, I’m feeling that here, at least this year with this weather, with these balls, I can play like on hard courts. It doesn’t feel different than Australian Open for me coming into this tournament. Now when I’m coming to these big tournaments feeling like this, I know I’m capable of doing big things.”