Same Old Roger Federer Shines at the New-Look French Open

PARIS — Endure long enough in professional tennis and the familiar becomes unfamiliar.

At the Miami Open last month, Roger Federer, 37, found himself winning the title in a professional football stadium instead of the more intimate confines of Key Biscayne.

“That took some getting used to,” he said.

On Sunday, he walked on court to play his first French Open match in four years in a newly rebuilt arena that bears only a passing resemblance to the red-clay temple in which he sliced backhands and skidded into the corners on his last visit.

Amid all the construction and commotion, what has not changed at Roland Garros is the way the moody French tennis fans embrace Federer. They filled up a smaller stadium on Saturday for one of his practice sessions, and on Sunday nearly every one of the 15,000 seats in the main Philippe Chatrier court was occupied as he polished off Lorenzo Sonego, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4.

He walked on court to a standing ovation and chants of “Roger,” and he finished the same way. Moments like these help explain why Federer is still pushing, still putting himself and his family through the road trips and the pro tennis routine after winning 20 major singles titles.

“I feel that the public missed me, and I missed, them, too,” he said on Sunday.

[French Open scores: Men’s singles | Women’s singles]

This remains the only Grand Slam tournament where he is a genuine outsider. Though he won this title in 2009, Rafael Nadal has won it a record 11 times while Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem have earned the right to be considered Nadal’s biggest threats.

Seeded No. 3, Federer is back in Paris with plenty of anticipation but without the customary pressure. He knows that can make him more dangerous, as it did at the 2017 Australian Open, where he returned from a six-month injury layoff and launched his late-career renaissance by winning the title there.

“I feel like if I lost in the first round or in the finals or wherever it is, people would be like, ‘O.K., that could have happened,’” Federer said of this year’s French Open. “I like that approach for me 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. This is not a show I’m putting on. This is the truth. I really don’t know how far I can go in this event.”

That rings true from a man who played no clay-court tennis in 2017 or 2018 and has not played a best-of-five-set tournament on clay since 2015, when he lost in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros to his Swiss compatriot Stan Wawrinka.

But Federer has played some convincing attack-minded tennis in his return to clay. He lost a tight three-setter to Thiem in the quarterfinals of the Madrid Open. Federer then found a way to wriggle free of two match points and Borna Coric and win in the third round of the Italian Open before withdrawing from the tournament to protect himself from aggravating a minor leg injury.

The primary goal was Paris, and he was on task and on target from the start against Sonego, a big-hitting, loud-grunting Italian who reached the quarterfinals of the Monte Carlo Open on clay this year. But he looked overmatched by the moment and by Federer for most of their brief first encounter.

Federer broke Sonego in his opening two service games, jumping out to a 4-0 lead. He then did the same in the second set and a fan shouted from high in the stands: “Pas trop vite, Roger” (“Not too fast, Roger”).

The crowd laughed in unison, and perhaps there was power in the suggestion. Federer was not as dominant after that. Sonego held serve and soon broke Federer for the first and only time in the match.

Though Sonego began to pose more of a threat with his heavy first serve and forehand, Federer has seen hundreds of players similar to Sonego in his 20 years on tour. Sonego, who started playing tennis at 11, late for a professional, has never seen anyone quite like Federer. His ability to block or chip off-pace returns forces a man out of his comfort zone. Making a very quick read, he can turn a baseline exchange into a more pressing matter by coming forward.

Federer served and volleyed intermittently with success, but above all he varied his game, even if he also was able to thrive when he decided to answer Sonego’s full-cut pace with full-cut pace of his own.

“Most of the players like conventional rallies: most players manage to hit their first serve, forehand and backhand very hard,” Federer said. “So the question is, do I want to do this and make it easy for them, or do I play differently, because I can, and make them more uncomfortable, make it more difficult for them? That’s very often the case. It’s fun for me to hit a drop shot or a passing shot, but it doesn’t mean I’m trying to avoid the fight.”

There were a few shanked forehands from Federer, a few miscalculated passing shots after he lured the 73d-ranked Sonego to net. But in general, Federer looked sharp and quick, and he will need to continue to be if he is to go deep in this French Open.

For now, he is still reacquainting himself with one of his old haunts, just as the fans were on Sunday as they discovered the new Simonne-Mathieu Court in the nearby botanical gardens or examined the new-look Chatrier court with its pale wooden seats, rounded corners and more subtle and uniform color scheme.

“I think it was helpful that the stadium was full, so you don’t see the sort of beige seats,” Federer said. “I feel like when it’s not full, you feel like it’s a completely different stadium.”

It is higher and wider than before, and it is not yet finished. A retractable roof won’t be in place until next year, and the tier of corporate suites with their long glass windows have not yet been put into service.

But Federer, even in the face of the unfamiliar, is in full working order. He had never played Sonego. Nor has he played Oscar Otte, who will be Federer’s second-round opponent. Nor has he played either of his possible third-round opponents: Matteo Berrettini of Italy or Casper Ruud, the 20-year-old Norwegian whose father, Christian, was in the draw when Federer played his first French Open in 1999.

At least the surname will ring a bell.

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