Paris — Roger Federer entered a refurbished Court Philippe Chatrier for his first French Open match since 2015, greeted by the sun peeking through the clouds and the full-throated support of spectators in their designer sunglasses, straw hats and sweaters tied over their shoulders.
Were it permitted, perhaps some ticket-holders would have embraced Federer right then and there, delivering a kiss on each cheek, as if reunited with an old friend at a sidewalk cafe.
Alas, the welcome was limited to wild applause and enthusiastic chants of his first name — “Roh-zher! Roh-zher!” — before and during a 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 victory against Lorenzo Sonego of Italy on Sunday. The match lasted a mere 101 minutes yet Federer found enough time and space to sprinkle in some tremendous shot-making.
“The reception I got today was crazy. Was really nice to see a full stadium for a first round like this,” Federer said, comparing the atmosphere to that of a final.
“I feel,” he said, “that the public missed me. And I missed them, as well.”
His presence at the year’s second Grand Slam tournament was the highlight of Day 1, which included losses by multiple major winners Venus Williams, Angelique Kerber and Svetlana Kuznetsova, along with victories for Sloane Stephens, Garbiñe Muguruza, Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori.
Kerber has been dealing with an injured foot and was beaten 6-4, 6-2 by Anastasia Potapova. That was the opening match in the largely rebuilt main stadium, a structure of concrete and glass that is expected to have a retractable roof by the 2020 French Open and now features padded beige seats instead of plastic green ones.
Across the way, 2016 champion Muguruza inaugurated the new 5,290-seat Court Simonne Mathieu, which is surrounded by greenhouses displaying tropical plants, with a 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Taylor Townsend of the U.S.
Later in that same spot, 38-year-old Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam titlist and the 2002 runner-up in Paris, exited in the first round for the fourth time in the past seven years at Roland Garros. She was broken in seven of her nine service games during a 6-3, 6-3 loss to No. 9 seed Elina Svitolina.
Federer, the owner of 20 Grand Slam titles, will turn 38 in August and, frankly, who knows how many more of these he has left?
“Not getting any younger,” he noted.
The guy certainly appeared delighted to make his return to a tournament he won a decade ago, completing a career Grand Slam, but sat out each of the past three years. In 2016, he was sidelined by a back problem, ending his then-record streak of 65 consecutive appearances at majors. Federer then skipped the entire clay-court circuit in each of the past two seasons to focus on preparing for grass and hard courts.
Not since a quarterfinal loss to Stan Wawrinka four years ago had Federer competed at Roland Garros, which is why he described himself Sunday as “quite tense at the start.”
Didn’t seem that way, though. More like someone who never went away. He led the 73rd-ranked Sonego, who was making his French Open debut, 4-0 after less than 15 minutes, then went up a set and 4-0 in the second after 40.
“There are times when you recognize that he makes the difficult things look easy. It’s incredible,” Sonego said. “All you can do is hope he messes up now and then, because otherwise, it’s really hard.”
Federer gave the folks what they wanted, providing a live-and-in-person highlight reel of his full and considerable repertoire. There was the ace at 121 mph (195 kph) to begin his first service game, and the ace at 110 mph (178 kph) to conclude it. The drop-volley winner on the run. The serve-and-volley putaway. The sprint for an up-the-line winner off a delicate drop shot by Sonego that was so good, and so apparently hard to reach, that an Italian fan gushed, “Bravo! Bravo!” in praise of her countryman before Federer got to the ball.
“In the important moments, he raises his level and turns into a computer,” Sonego said. “He never makes the wrong choice.”
Really, the lone blip for Federer came when he double-faulted to get broken for the only time, eliciting an admonishing slap of racket strings from him — and a collective “Awwwww” of dismay from his thousands of admirers. That was part of a three-game, dozen-minute surge for Sonego, who got within 4-3 in the second set before ceding it.
By the end, Federer had won the point on 25 of 30 trips to the net and put together a ratio of 36 winners to 15 unforced errors.
While so much of the title speculation is focused on Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — both play Monday — Federer enjoys the unusual-for-him position of lowered expectations.
“It’s nice to be an outsider,” he said with an almost imperceptible shrug. “That’s how I feel, anyhow. Just see how it goes, you know. … 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.”