Federer playing for the love of the game

Swiss survives a stern test from Dominik Koepfer to reach the Roland-Garros fourth round

Roger Federer, Roland Garros 2021, third round© Philippe Montigny/FFT
 - Danielle Rossingh

Roger Federer muttered to himself, shot weary glances at his box, struggled with his serve and even forgot the scoreline.

Federer’s first night session at Roland-Garros against German lefty Dominik Koepfer did not go as planned.

But even at the age of 39, and playing in only his sixth match this season after a long lay-off because of injury, the Swiss had the heart to get the job done.  

“J’adore le tennis,” Federer said, after winning a gruelling 7-6(5), 6-7(3), 7-6(4), 7-5 battle at 12:43am on Sunday morning in an empty main Court Philippe-Chatrier.

“My fighting spirit got me over the line,” said the 2009 winner, who missed most of last year after undergoing two knee surgeries. “You’ve got to love what you do, and I do.”

Unlike his previous two matches, which were played in the daytime in warm weather, the conditions for Federer’s third round were completely different.

Federer, one of the most popular players to have ever grace the Parisian clay, walked onto the main stadium court in almost complete silence. The night sessions in Paris are played behind closed doors because of a 9pm curfew due to the coronavirus.

“It benefits the players like myself or other players that are very focused when they go practice nowadays,” said Federer, when asked what it was like to play with no fans.

“I probably would have struggled a great deal when I was a teenager or a young player, because for me, practice was not really what I loved doing at all. I actually really disliked it, and for me it was all about the matches and atmosphere and playing for something.”

Federer began well, as he served smartly. But his 59th-ranked German opponent immediately showed he was not going to be a pushover, hitting heavy groundstrokes on both wings to keep the Swiss back.

After taking the first set on the tiebreak, Federer broke in the opening game of the second set but surrendered the break soon after. The pair then swapped breaks again, with the No.8 seed trying to outhit the left-handed Koepfer, who was causing damage with his backhand.

As Federer lost rhythm on serve, Koepfer took the second set on the tiebreak and when he broke in the opening game of the third, the 2009 champion looked in trouble.

“I wasn't sure after the second set how much was left in the tank, so it was a good battle until then,” Federer said. “I feel like I needed to maybe pace myself ever so slightly at that moment, especially emotionally, of not pressing too hard and wanting it too badly.”

Roger Federer, Roland Garros 2021, third round© Philippe Montigny/FFT

But after battling hard to win his service games, Federer broke back for 4-4 as Koepfer faltered and then, serving better again and using the drop shot superbly, he snatched the third-set tiebreak to move ahead as the clock struck midnight in Paris.

In the fourth set, Federer broke early but was pegged back and had to keep strong on serve to stay in it, only to then lift his game again, breaking for 6-5 and serving out the clash for a well-earned victory. The 39-year-old has now reached the fourth round in Paris on his last 13 consecutive trips to Roland-Garros. He faces Italy’s Matteo Berrettini in the fourth round.

Federer said his win over Koepfer was “very important” for him.

“I clearly hadn't practiced three hours 35, because that's obviously always pushing it. I pushed as much as I could, as we thought reasonable. But this today was a huge step forward for the team, and for all of us. I didn't expect to be able to win three matches here,” he added.

The 27-year-old Koepfer hailed the 20-time major champion, and marvelled at his abilities after spending more than two decades on tour.

“Roger is Roger,” Koepfer told German press after the match. “Unbelievable what he does at the age of 39. He plays very good tennis and is incredibly fit. He played better in the deciding moments.”

Although Federer was tired, he still managed to crack a joke as he left the court.

“Thank you for not falling asleep everybody, I appreciate it,” he joked, with a huge grin on his face.