French Open 2021: Federer withdraws after tough post-midnight win, in what may be last Paris appearance

Following 18-month absence and knee surgery, he said: “It’s important that I listen to my body and make sure I don’t push myself too quickly”

Roger Federer
Roger Federer (Photo: Media handout)

After a year and a half away and two knee operations, the return of Roger Federer to elite competition was always going to be both highly anticipated and closely watched.

For in truth, with his 40th birthday fast approaching, and just three matches, with only won win, under his belt this season, there were low expectations when he began his campaign at this year’s Roland Garros a full two years after his last match-win on clay.

He wanted to get court-time and match fitness to help prepare him for the grass season, and for Wimbledon in particular, and he surprised himself as much as anyone else with his level in beating Marin Cilic in the second round in four tough sets.

But the struggle was there for all to see through a marathon late-night third-round battle, played out in cool night conditions in an echoing Philipp Chatrier arena, where this year’s new ‘night sessions’ began at 9pm but without any fans due to ongoing Covid curfews in Paris.

Federer made heavy weather of the 59-ranked German, Dominik Koepfer, 7-6(5), 6-7(3), 7-6(4), 7-5, in a three-hour, 35-minute contest. The Swiss timing was far from its best, his serve was off its usual spot-hitting mark, and 63 errors peppered his play—for only 51 winners—fewer than his opponent.

He seemed to be heading for the exit door when he conceded the second set and went 4-2 down in the third, but Federer managed to break back in the eighth game and, after missing a set point in the 12th, he edged the third tie-break.

The fourth set was another long and tense affair, but Federer finally got the break to avoid yet another tie-break, taking the win at close to 1am, 7-5.

He looked, frankly, spent even before an extended on-court interview to no-one but his team and the few remaining journalists. Then there were the formal press-conference requirements at around 2am, which was followed by the trip back to central Paris, physio, food, and a final wind-down for sleep at, maybe, 4am.

So maybe it was to be expected that the body was already asking questions of the mind so soon after returning to this demanding level of match-play. As he admitted:

“I didn’t expect to be able to win three matches here, and back up a good performance of Cilic as well in completely different circumstances tonight. So I’m very happy. [But] I think we have a lot to go through with the team about tonight.”

He went on:

“I’d prefer to be in Rafa’s or Novak’s shoes right now where they’re like, ‘I’m feeling good. If I’m playing well, I’m winning.’

“I don’t have that feeling right now, so for me these are all stepping stones to something that is really important to me. It’s the season, and it’s the comeback… We go through these matches, you know, we analyse them highly and look on what’s next and will do the same tonight and tomorrow latest, because I need to decide if I keep on playing or not, or is it not too much risk at this moment to keep on pushing.

“Because I don’t have the week in between here and Halle, like normal, to see what’s best now if you count back from Wimbledon.”

That press conference touched on many impacting issues: Not just his surgery, his long absence and recent return, and managing the impact on his body of best-of-five matches. When Roland Garros opted to shift the French Open to a week later, they deprived the grass swing of a week’s rest and preparation, and that has figured large in Federer’s planned schedule for his rehab.

Taken as a whole, then, the Sunday announcement from Federer came as no great surprise:

“After discussions with my team, I’ve decided I will need to pull out of Roland-Garros today. After two knee surgeries and over a year of rehabilitation, it’s important that I listen to my body and make sure I don’t push myself too quickly on my road to recovery. I am thrilled to have gotten three matches under my belt. There is no greater feeling than being back on court.”

Federer was due to play the formidable No9 seed, Matteo Berrettini, in Round 4, but instead the Italian advances to his first French Open quarter-final where he will play either Novak Djokovic or his unseeded compatriot, Lorenzo Musetti.

Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were, for the first time, drawn in the same half of the draw, but the 16 seeds scheduled for Round 4 have been reduced to only five: Djokovic and Berrettini in the top quarter, Nadal, Jannik Sinner and Diego Schwartzman in the second quarter.

However if this was indeed the last match of the tournament’s No8 seed at Roland Garros, after 19 appearances, it was as low-key an exit for a former champion as the French Open could envisage, albeit following as gritty a Federer win as they have ever enjoyed.

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