Roger Federer is a being of rhythm. On his comeback in Doha after a long time away from the game, when a lot of things had changed in tennis, he joked about the rules that have changed. It felt like a small detail at the time, but those are often the most crucial at the highest level of sport.
Fast forward a few months, and he has another Grand Slam match win to his name. And there are reasons why the first-round match at Roland Garros against Denis Istomin would have been everything Federer was hoping for all these months.
Federer, of course, can’t be considered a serious contender for the French Open title this year. He has said so himself. After all, he’s nearing 40, has had two knee surgeries over the past year and heading into Roland Garros, he had lost two of the three matches he had played on tour over the past 16 months.
But when it comes to a player as big as Federer, with the weight of his achievements, there is a certain set of expectations that’s impossible to put aside. You wouldn’t imagine him beating the best immediately, but you’d expect him to play at a certain level eventually. That’s just how it goes with champions. If they choose to compete at an event, you know they’re not in it for a participation certificate.
When Federer returned to competitive tennis after a gap of 14 months in Doha earlier this year, those quiet expectations emerged as well. But his comeback was far from ideal, as he lost in the second round to Nikoloz Basilashvili after winning the opening set.
Once again, when he participated in the Geneva Open after taking another two months off to train, Federer was expected to make a mark. But again, he could not inspire any real confidence as he went down in the opening round to Pablo Andujar.
Federer has said on more than one occasion that Wimbledon is the big goal for him this year. Admittedly, playing the French Open is a means to that end and get quality match practice. However, there’s no denying he would’ve wanted more wins under his belt stepping on to the court in a Grand Slam match after a gap of 487 days. The week leading up to Roland Garros saw his practice partners – the likes of Gael Monfils and David Goffin – swear by his ability, but questions remained nonetheless.
Turning back the clock
On Monday, the 20-time Major winner turned back the clock in some style to register a 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 win in just an hour and 33 minutes. It was a victory that will give him immense self belief.
Federer burst out of the blocks and made the most of the hot conditions which allowed the ball to travel faster. He broke Istomin in the very first game and simply didn’t look back, delivering a near flawless performance.
Putting aside the sheer volume of outrageous drop shot winners along with the delightful net-play throughout the match, the standout feature of Federer’s play was his serve. He didn’t have a single double fault, hit eight aces, landed 71% of his first serves, and didn’t face a break point in the match. These are mighty impressive numbers that are sure to fill him with confidence.
The kick serves out wide even allowed him to dictate play with his forehand. He was being aggressive with his backhand too, opting for the full swing instead of the slice for the most part, but it was the one-two punch of the serve and the forehand – perhaps his two biggest weapons – that enabled him to keep his nose ahead comfortably.
Another major positive for Federer was his speed and athleticism through the entire duration. He was playing a best-of-five match after a long time but there was hardly a glimpse of age having caught up him. He was up a break leading 4-2 in the third set when he chased down the ball from every corner before losing the point after his tweener went long. The fact that that game lasted just under seven minutes shows how determined he is and is a promising sign.
‘Confidence is everything’
In a chat with Tennis Channel after the match, Federer spoke about why he’d prefer having confidence over experience.
“I think confidence always wins. You’re much more clear in the head. I feel confidence wins you a lot of matches. You don’t doubt yourself, you feel like it’s going to go your away. You believe you’re going to make the difference in the most important moments. You’re not hoping for the other guy to miss, you believe you’re actually going to hit the winner. So confidence, I really believe, is everything,” he said.
Confidence, or the lack thereof, has been a defining factor throughout Federer’s career. When he has it, he’s arguably the best frontrunner in the game. When he doesn’t, he could very well put together a string of unforced errors and miss multiple break opportunities. In the defeats to Basilashvili and Andujar as well, his tentativeness in key moments proved to be the difference. But that wasn’t the case against Istomin on Monday.
Despite his impressive serving, volleying, groundstrokes, and movement in the opening round, what will perhaps give Federer the most confidence is the fact that he didn’t let his game drop beyond a certain point from start to finish. He had his weak moments but he didn’t let them get to him and bounced back each time.
And, as he said after the match, the key detail for him was finding that rhythm back in the little things.
It’s still only one victory and he remains a long way away from the level he wants to reach, but Federer’s performance against Istomin sets him on the right track at last. His next opponent is Marin Cilic, someone he’s shared the big stage with a number of times. And make no mistake, there will be expectations once again. With confidence on his side, Federer would like to take another step in the right direction.
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