Why Roger Federer Returned to the French Open
On Wednesday, during the first set of his second-round match at Roland Garros, Roger Federer bounced the ball and began his graceful, fluid service motion. He and his opponent, Oscar Otte, had each won four games so far. Otte floated back a return, and Federer, already moving toward the net, angled a high volley into the ad-court corner. Otte could only lob back a reply, which Federer easily put away. Then he hit a second-serve ace, giving him the hold. In the next game, Otte, who had been playing with the freedom of a man who was lucky to be there, forced a backhand wildly wide—his first truly bad decision. The two men had won almost exactly the same number of points, and yet the match already seemed over. A few moments later, Federer won the first set.
He won the next two sets with clinical efficiency: perfectly placed serves, masterful volleys, short balls flicked with playful insouciance. In the second, he hit a drop shot with so much backspin that it rebounded toward the net. His touch routinely elicited the oohs and ahs that we’re used to hearing when Federer plays. People only got out of their seats in order to applaud him.
It can be tiring, sometimes, all the attention paid to Federer. The sport of tennis is so big, and, these days, so full of real contenders that the focus on one man seems myopic. And there is something strange about seeing a stadium full of people watching an uncompetitive match when the stands have looked paltry for other great champions engaged in stiffer fights. But it is hard to look away when he plays, and not only for the magic of his shotmaking. The French Open offers a particular test: it is the one place on the tour where he has never truly been king.
Clay doesn’t quite suit him. It is grit, messy and crushed, and he is Roger Federer, elegance and ease. Nevermind that he is probably the second-best clay-court player of the past decade and a half, a four-time finalist at Roland Garros and the winner of a title here ten years ago. The surface doesn’t favor his attacking style, his precise serve, his quick hands, his instinct for the net. He wants to move forward, and the dirt will slide you side to side. Injuries ended his clay season in 2016, and he skipped the surface altogether in 2017 and 2018, saving his aging body for the grass.
So why has he come back this year? In his pre-tournament press conference, Federer was asked whether he thought that he could win the French Open. “A bit of a question mark for me,” he said. “I’m not sure if it’s in my racquet, you know.” So far his strategy seems to be pretending that he isn’t in Paris but rather on the hard courts of Melbourne, or maybe even the grass of Wimbledon. He has been playing at a quick clip, not getting caught in long rallies. He is stepping inside the baseline, controlling the points by moving vertically, instead of doing the typical clay-court lateral running. In his first-round match, against Lorenzo Sonego, he won twenty-five of thirty net points—a stunning number of approaches for a short match on clay. Against Otte, he won twenty-three of thirty-one. It is unlikely that he will be able to dictate as much against players like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, if he lasts that long. He may struggle even before then.
At that pre-tournament press conference, Federer acknowledged that getting deep into the tournament is not a given for him, adding, “It’s definitely going to be an exciting tournament mentally to go through.” There is speculation that he has come back to the French Open because he will be retiring soon, and he wants to play Roland Garros one last time, as a swan song. He is a bit of a romantic, after all. But why not take him at his word? He is a supremely competitive athlete who sees, in this tournament, a special challenge. He has a chance to win, however small—of course he has a chance—and he has nothing to prove. No one is picking him. For once, he can be the one without expectations, the one who, should he go far, may even feel lucky to be there. The last time he felt like this, he told the press, was in Australia, in 2017, when he was coming back from an injury. As it happens, on that occasion, he won the whole thing.