Roger Federer described himself as “an outsider” for the French Open title on Sunday but admitted he was delighted to have ended his self-imposed four-year exile from Paris.
Federer marked his return to Roland Garros with a 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 win over Italy’s Lorenzo Sonego.
It was the 37-year-old’s first match at the tournament since losing to compatriot Stan Wawrinka in the quarter-finals in 2015.
“The goal was always to play every year and then what happened with the knee and the back in ‘16, ‘17, ‘18 I just felt for my health maybe it was better not to do it,” he said of his decision to cut the event from his schedule.
“And all of a sudden these years go by, and you haven’t played. Now I’m very happy I took that decision. I’m happy to be here. The reception I got today was crazy, was really nice to see a full stadium for a first round like this. It was a beauty. So I’m very, very happy.”
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Federer’s only title in Paris and 20 years since he made his debut.
In those two decades, he has won a record 20 majors but isn’t getting too carried away by his chances of denting the likelihood of either Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic emerging with the trophy in two weeks’ time.
Nadal is an 11-time champion who has lost just twice since his 2005 bow while world number one Djokovic is bidding to hold all four Slams at once for a second time.
“It’s nice to be an outsider. That’s how I feel, anyhow. I know when Wimbledon comes around, I’ll be probably a higher favourite. That’s okay, too,” added Federer.
“I love to play. The travelling doesn’t bother me too much. I feel like I have a lot of friends around the world, so it’s nice to see them, as well. My family loves it, too. They are okay with it. That helps a little bit.”
On Sunday, it was as if Federer had never been away as he swept to victory in one hour 41 minutes on a rebuilt and packed Court Philippe Chatrier. It was his 60th successive first round win at a Grand Slam.
“I missed it so much so thanks for the welcome,” said Federer. “I felt great playing on this court. It looks great and attractive, so congratulations to everyone involved. Hopefully I can play here again for my next match.”
Federer broke serve five times and fired 36 winners past 24-year-old Sonego, the world number 73 who made the quarter-finals at the Monte Carlo Masters this year after qualifying.
“Two breaks in the first set was very important for me and when I was leading 4-0 I could take more risks, be more aggressive,” said the third seed. “I know that I can play very well on clay and I am very happy to win in straight sets.”
Federer will face German lucky loser Oscar Otte, ranked 145 in the world, for a place in the third round. “I would be surprised if Roger knows my name,” said Otte, who has won just two matches on the main tour during his eight years as a professional.