Roger Federer was honest with himself, and everyone else, before the French Open, saying he knew he didn’t have any chance of winning the title. He arrived in Paris, after all, having played just three matches over the preceding year-plus following two knee operations.
Still, neither he, nor anyone else, probably expected Federer to have such a hard time getting out of Week 1 at Roland Garros. Eventually, he avoided what would have been his earliest loss there since 2004 by pulling out a 7-6 (5), 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4), 7-5 victory over 59th-ranked Dominik Koepfer that began Saturday night and ended as 1 a.m. approached — with no crowd present because of a COVID-19 curfew.
Federer, a 20-time Grand Slam champion who turns 40 on Aug. 8, was last bounced from the French Open in the third round 17 years ago; since then, his successes there included winning the 2009 trophy and reaching four other finals (losing to Rafael Nadal each time).
But Federer couldn’t hit through the court or successfully employ the attacking tactics he enjoys, perhaps because of cloud cover and temperatures in the low-60s Fahrenheit (teens Celsius), which made for cooler, heavier conditions than in recent days and slowed shots down.
He never quite could wrest complete control against Koepfer, a 27-year-old left-hander from Germany with zero tour-level titles, a losing career record, a best ranking of No. 50 and only one previous run as far as the fourth round at a major.
Adding to the oddness of it all was the lack of spectators, who almost assuredly would have tried to offer a boost to Federer, a popular player who might not have many — any? — more French Open appearances in him at this stage of his career.
Scheduled night matches are new this year at Roland Garros, and ticket-holders are being ushered out of the place before 9 p.m. as part of precautions instituted because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It meant that applause, and the occasional shout, on Court Philippe Chatrier was pretty much limited to the handful of players’ guests. The sound of shoes scraping the crushed red brick or shots leaving rackets were accompanied by the clang of Federer angrily hitting balls off courtside advertising signage between points or his self-criticisms upon delivery of some of his whopping 63 unforced errors — 23 more than Koepfer.
Koepfer’s serving became increasingly effective in the middle sets, yes, but the biggest issue for Federer was his own propensity for mistakes.
The second-set tiebreaker illustrated that well: From 2-all, Federer netted a backhand, sailed a forehand long, missed another backhand and yanked a forehand off-target to give set points to Koepfer, who played college tennis at Tulane. A wide backhand ceded the set.
In the third, Federer fell behind by a break but managed to recover. When his drop shot drew a wide reply to end that tiebreaker, he shook his right fist. On the other side of the net, Koepfer grabbed his own throat. Koepfer showed more frustration in the fourth, when he disagreed with a line call, walked over to the ball mark, then leaned over to spit at it.
That drew a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct from the chair umpire and a point penalty. Down a break, Koepfer broke back and extended the fourth set until Federer broke in the next-to-last game, then served out the victory.
It put Federer in the round of 16 at a major for the 68th time, extending his men’s record — ahead of Novak Djokovic, who got that far for the 54th time earlier Saturday, and Rafael Nadal, who raised his total to 50.
They are all in the same half of a Grand Slam draw for the first time, and all face Italians on Monday. The No. 8-seeded Federer goes up against No. 9 Matteo Berrettini, No. 1 Djokovic meets unseeded Lorenzo Musetti, and Nadal takes on No. 18 Jannik Sinner.
If Federer and Djokovic advance, they will play each other in the quarterfinals; the winner of that matchup possibly would face Nadal in the semifinals.
Federer made plain last month that he viewed this event as more of a way to prepare for a title bid at Wimbledon, which begins June 28, than any kind of opportunity to break his tie with Nadal for the most Slam trophies for a man.
“I’m just realistic and I know I will not win the French — and whoever thought I would, or could, win it is wrong,” Federer said at the time. ”Of course, crazier things might have happened. But I’m not so sure in the last 50 years at the French Open, somebody just walked up at 40 years old, being out for a year and a half, and just (went) on to win everything."