As the clock struck midnight in Paris, Roger Federer won the third set of his third-round match against Dominik Koepfer when he had no business doing so. A few minutes earlier, at the start of the set, Federer was playing like a man who did not sign up for being pushed this hard, this late in the night by a player who seemed to relish the nothing-to-lose-everything-to-gain narrative.
Playing in the first weekend of a Major that he doesn’t particularly put on the top of his priorities list, Federer moved in straight lines, mostly up and down the court and not much sideways, stopped running after balls that he may have returned but likely wouldn’t have. He was already a break down after two gruelling sets that went to a tiebreak. The break of serve happened when a mishit lob from the frame of Koepfer’s racket harmlessly sailed over Federer’s head and landed inside the baseline. What was going on? He looked to the turf, as if willing it to swallow him up.
For most of that set he looked flat... but he hung in there. And then, out of nowhere, a sudden burst of energy. Not brilliance, per se. We have seen better from him. This was just a stalled engine that suddenly came to life. Second gear, perhaps third at best? But with some smart play, he clinched the set.
That eventually set summed up the escape act that Federer pulled off on the night, winning 7-6 (5), 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4), 7-5 to reach French Open last 16.
“I’m not bothered by the outcome of this match at all,” Andy Murray tweeted a few minutes before Federer’s win was sealed. “Just seeing Federer at 39 off the back of two knee surgeries playing to an empty stadium at 12.30 am getting fired up is inspirational to me. Do what you love.”
Of course, Murray knows. Sometimes, all it takes to inspire is standing your ground, powering through days where you don’t feel 100%. In those small daily wins, there is a lot to learn from.
Even before the third set, the match was veering between the ordinary and extraordinary. While Koepfer kept his level steady for the most part, Federer’s was fluctuating wildly. He hit a reflex backhand down the line service return that could not have gone any flatter, but he struggled to put away basic overhead smashes. He played delicious drop shots but could not find consistency on either side. He went for a meet-and-greet with the ball-kid during a rally that forced him out wide and managed to return the ball to somehow win the point, but at other times his footwork seemed all over the place.
The first tie-break was soon followed by an early break of serve in the second but that lead did not translate into momentum for Federer. Both players broke each other’s serves at love. And then both players held serve at 15. There was nothing predictable about this match, whatsoever. It was not like Federer was playing badly and seemed destined to lose; it was not as if Koepfer, 27 years old and ranked 59 in the world, was playing badly either.
Not long after that Houdini act in the third set, in another bizarre twist, Federer lost a service game in the fourth where he had a point penalty to start with. Koepfer, at the change of ends, had crossed the net and spat on the ball-mark to earn himself the umpire’s wrath. It seemed he was unravelling. But Federer got broken. Like some everyday person who didn’t quite know what to do with a gift that he never expected to receive.
It felt like two equals going hard at each other. On paper, they weren’t. On court, they kept cancelling each other out. Playing in front of no fans for the first time, even Federer’s grunts seemed guttural on a couple of occasions, echoing through the near-empty arena. Remember when he used to win without breaking into a half decent sweat?
There is, however, something inexplicably lovable about this version of Federer. We saw that at Australian Open too, in 2020. He saved match points (seven of them) against Tennys Sandgren. He believed in miracles, he said then. For some, it can be jarring to see a man, who has been winning for so long, and doing so with an alarming efficiency often, go through the grind like he has in the last couple of heavily-curtained seasons.
The win against Koepfer on Saturday night won’t quite qualify as a miracle, but he once again showed there is more to his game than just grace. When his body and legs give up, he can sneak a win or two here and there with his mind and heart. It is certainly not enough to win the French Open (even he knows it). It might just have taken too much out of his tank for him to even play the next round.
But, on a night like this, Federer feels like one of us. He seems to be going through self doubts, periods of being ordinary on the court, and then conjures up a moment of brilliance out of nowhere. It is, in some ways, like how you and I would imagine our regular week to be.
For so long, we have just marvelled at how otherworldly he is. Those moments might now be less frequent but perhaps we should also embrace the worldly, mortal, erratic version of his because it almost feels relatable on a personal level.
For so long, a legion of his fans have enjoyed Roger Federer as a religious experience. Maybe this little phase of his career is about enjoying Roger Federer as a very human experience.
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