Updated: May 23, 2019 8:33:37 pm
Ever since the 37-year-old announced he was ending his self-imposed French Open exile, anticipation has been growing and video footage of his gentle warmup on Tuesday sent his legions of fans into a frenzy.
It is 10 years since Federer claimed his one and only title on the Parisian dirt — completing his career slam with victory over Swede Robin Soderling.
He opted to skip the French Open for the past three years — a decision based on prolonging his career — but a decade after lifting La Coupe des Mousquetaires he returns not just for old time’s sake, but because the Swiss must truly believe he has a chance of a 21st Grand Slam title.
Federer showed enough in a quarter-final run in Madrid — his first claycourt tournament for three years — that he had not forgotten how to slide with the best of them.
He also won a couple of rounds in Rome last week before withdrawing ahead of his match against Stefanos Tsitsipas citing a minor injury concern.
Federer will step into a new look Roland Garros this year and admits it has been hard to be away.
Asked why he returned in an interview with French TV channel Stade 2, he explained: “What made me decide to come back to Roland-Garros? In the end, it’s envy,” he said.
“I like slipping, cushioning, riding at odds, playing with angles and to see the fans I have not seen here.”
Federer’s last match at Roland Garros was a quarter-final loss to fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka in 2015.
Since then he has added two Australian Opens and one more Wimbledon title to his glittering record and he clearly still hungers after the game’s biggest prizes.
But with his 38th birthday looming and a host of dangerous claycourters assembling in Paris, it would surely top any of his previous feats if he reclaimed the title.
“You can’t say never because it’s Roger,” twice French Open runner-up Alex Corretja, told Reuters.
“In my opinion he’s not one of the favourites because there’s a lot of guys who can hurt his game on the clay.”
Federer will hope for warm conditions to speed up the courts and perhaps allow him to use the serve-and-volley tactics he employed liberally in Madrid this month when he reached the quarter-finals in his first clay event for three years.
“I always thought that serve and volleying on a hot day on clay almost has more reward than on a grass court sometimes because the ball jumps out of the strike zone,” he said.
The conditions, and the luck of the draw, will play a big factor in Federer’s prospects over the next two weeks but whatever happens this year’s French Open story will be all the more memorable for his return.
“I don’t think he has in his mind winning the French Open, he will just go there day by day and whatever he does it will be a bonus,” Corretja said.
“Whether it’s two, three, four or five matches, it will help him arrive at Wimbledon with more rhythm.”
The Kyrgios one-man circus rolls into Paris
It may be a little frosty in the locker room Roland Garros after the Australian described 11-times champion Rafa Nadal as a sore loser and Novak Djokovic as obsessed with being liked in an explosive podcast interview last week.
The Parisian crowd may also be a little scornful after he said the French Open “absolutely sucks” compared to Wimbledon in a video he shot himself and posted on social media.
By his own admission, Kyrgios has virtually no chance of winning the tournament on a surface he “hates”, with the odds on him taking out any of the other three Grand Slams not significantly higher.
And yet, few players will be that keen to see his name bracketed with theirs in the draw, for all the likelihood the lanky world number 36 will spontaneously combust mid-match and ease their passage into the next round.
Kyrgios might never have been past the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam, but he has shown he has the tools to topple any one of the titans of the game.
The 24-year-old boasts a 2-0 record over Djokovic, is 3-3 in his sometimes heated rivalry with Nadal and beat Roger Federer on clay in their first match in 2015.
In one sparkling week in Acapulco in March, Kyrgios downed Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, John Isner and Alexander Zverev to claim the Mexican Open title, all while partying every night at the coastal resort.
“I’m taking the piss out of the sport,” he said in the “No Challenges Remaining” podcast.
“I’m lucky to be able to practise for, like, 45 minutes without something going wrong.”
For all his boasts of being “a bit of a genius” on court, Kyrgios’s fitness is dire compared to the tour’s hard workers and his mental game has all the fortitude of puff pastry.
His lack of commitment means regular losses to honest tour battlers, like German world number 49 Jan-Lennard Struff who weeks ago dumped him from the first round in Madrid after Kyrgios turned up with a backpack and only one spare racket.
World number 63 Casper Ruud was dragged into the spotlight at the Italian Open last week when Kyrgios threw a chair on the court and stormed off after the unheralded Norwegian had broken him early in the deciding third set.
Nadal primed for another French Open charge after Rome crescendo
Rafael Nadal has hit form at the perfect time heading into the French Open after a slow start, by his standards, to the claycourt season caused some to doubt his chances of continuing his vice-like grip on the tournament.
Nadal has made a habit of cleaning up at the warm-up tournaments to Roland Garros, but semi-final defeats in Madrid, Barcelona and Monte Carlo led to a sense that his dominance on clay might be receding.
Yet with the prospect of a record-extending 12th title appearing far from certain, the Spaniard showed rumours of his demise were greatly exaggerated with an outstanding 6-0 4-6 6-1 victory over Novak Djokovic to win the Italian Open.
Few would now bet against him continuing his dominance on the surface in Paris, where he has only dropped one set since 2016.
Nadal’s rivals will have to hope the King of Clay is shorn of peak fitness.
He had only recently recovered from the knee injury which caused him to retire from Indian Wells, when he lost to Fabio Fognini in straight sets in Monte Carlo, which he described as one of his worst ever displays on clay.
He was in rusty form at the Barcelona Open and fell to another straight sets defeat to Dominic Thiem, who he crushed in the 2018 French Open final, and was beaten by Stefanos Tsitsipas when hampered by a stomach bug at the Madrid Open.
He was back to his imperious best in Italy, avenging his defeat to Tsitsipas before whitewashing world number one Djokovic in the opening set for the first time on his way to a first title of the season which is unlikely to be the last.
“I don’t think Rafa needed to win in Rome to prove that he is the toughest guy to beat on clay, but it was a statement for the opponents,” tennis expert Alex Corretja told Reuters.
“(It was) like ‘ok, I haven’t won as many tournaments as before during the claycourt season but I’m still the toughest guy to beat’, and for his self-confidence and his rhythm and his movement it was very important that he played Rome and he won…
“And it’s better that he won in Rome rather than win in Monte Carlo. It’s perfect timing, I think he has reached a crescendo in Rome.”
The 17-times Grand Slam champion certainly never doubted himself once he returned to full fitness.
“The most important thing is I feel that I’m playing well and feeling healthy and with the energy I need,” he said.
“If that happens, experience tells me I’m going to fight for titles sooner or later. The main thing for me was recover my level, then the results should be there if that happens.”
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