The last time was in 2015, and he would step onto European clay fewer than half a dozen times the next spring after undergoing knee surgery.
And with his return to the red stuff earlier this month, he trod the dirt just five times, withdrawing from Rome after a gruelling three-set win over Borna Coric.
What realistically, then, were the chances that the man who turns 38 in a couple of months’ time could cause an even bigger stir by going deep into this year’s draw? He certainly wasn’t the favourite—by some distance. CBS Sports, as Federer took to a sun-drenched Philippe Chatrier, suggested he trailed a number of other men.
Predictably, 11-time champion Rafael Nadal was top of the pile, and naturally, world No1, Novak Djokovic, going for his fourth consecutive Major title in a row, was close behind, with No4 seed and last year’s runner-up, Dominic Thiem, also very short odds. The quartet was completed not by Federer but by one of the fastest rising stars in the game, No6 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.
But those odds certainly did not reflect the desire of a packed Chatrier as Federer followed a winning Tsitsipas onto court. It is rare, at this opening stage of a tournament, to get a standing ovation, but that is what Federer enjoyed.
As if this was not an intimidating enough greeting for Italian 24-year-old Lorenzo Sonego, ranked 73, that ovation was followed by the chant: “Roger, Roger”.
The Swiss had made an effort, too, to chime in with the elegant blond-wood revamp of Roland Garros’s show courts. His sponsor had gone down an unusual path of café-au-lait and cream for his plain kit, with an appropriate nod to the clay in the orange flashes on his shoes.
So would Sonego be intimidated, playing for the first time in the Roland Garros main draw, on its biggest court, to a packed crowd, against Federer? Clay was the Italian’s preferred surface for sure: Of his 14 tour-level wins, 11 have come on the red stuff. And from a ranking of 140 a year ago, he had reached the quarters in Marrakech and then the Monte-Carlo Masters this season, both via qualifying.
He certainly looked tight in the early goings, helped by the pace at which Federer plays, with no pause between points, and hustling from inside the court at every opportunity. It did not bode well for the challenger that the Swiss won his first point, against serve, with a backhand that dribbled over the net, and went on to break straight away.
Federer broke again for a 4-0 lead, and although Sonego got on the board with a hold, and held again, Federer held to love, 6-2, after just 24 minutes.
To his credit, the Italian settled in better in the second set, though again Federer set out his stall in the first game with a return-of-serve drop-shot winner, and broke immediately. Sonego was bringing plenty of intensity to the court, serving better, and although Federer took another strong lead, holding to love with two serve-and-volley winning plays, the Italian finally held for 1-4, and he got his reward for upping the aggression from the baseline, and going for his passes against the net-rushing Federer.
He earned 0-40, three break points, earned a fourth with a return-of-serve winner. This time, Federer double faulted to hand a break back.
Sonego clenched his fist in delight at a perfect drop-volley-lob combo, and held with an ace for 3-4. However he could not break again: Federer held to love for 6-4, after an hour of tennis.
The Italian held his ground well in the third set, holding off two break points in the fifth game. But the Federer serve was holding up strongly now, and come the key moment, the Swiss pounced to break, drawing the error with some athletic backhand defence. He had only to serve out the match 6-4, having won 25 out of 30 net points, and a very clean 36 winners to 15 errors.
He is clearly enjoying his return to an old hunting ground—and not being one of the favourites in to the bargain:
“It’s nice to be an outsider. That’s how I feel, anyhow… I like that approach also once in a while. It relaxes you on the bigger points maybe, or it relaxes you subconsciously as you walk through the grounds and go to practice and go to the press room.
“I really don’t know how far I can go in this event, and I am very happy with my first round. It was a really good performance, I thought, from my side for not having played here for as long as I did… 10 or 20 years later, there was some buzz, which I could feel on centre court when I was training and when I was playing today. So it was rather cool, and I really loved the welcome I got. I hope that it continues like this.”
This was Federer’s 66th win at Roland Garros in his 18th appearance at the tournament, a full 20 years after he first played the main draw. He will next play lucky loser Oscar Otte, though the German will need a big dose of luck to get much further.
Also through in Federer’s segment were possible third round opponent, No29 seed Matteo Berrettini, who beat Pablo Andujar 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2. The Italian will next play, Casper Ruud. However, Federer’s scheduled fourth round opponent, No16 seed Marco Cecchinato, lost to veteran Nicolas Mahut from two sets up, after three and a quarter hours.
Tsitsipas certainly looked the part of one of the favourites in the tournament after a 6-2, 6-2, 7-6(4) win over Maximilian Marterer. The 20-year-old Greek was unseeded last year in Paris, but arrives this year following a victory over Rafael Nadal to reach the final in Madrid, and then reaching the semis in Rome, and that on top of winning in Estoril.
Also in this section, No11 seed Marin Cilic beat Thomas Fabbiano, 6-3, 7-5, 6-1. And he will next play Grigor Dimitrov, who seemed to be cruising against the returning Janko Tipsarevic, when he stormed through the first two sets, 6-3, 6-0, but then lost the next two set before regrouping to win 6-4 in the fifth, after more than three hours.
In the bottom quarter, the one headed by Nadal, Kei Nishikori beat Quentin Halys, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 after two hours, and will play either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Peter Gojowczyk.
MORE: The latest football news
MORE: The latest tennis news
BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge