Federer v Istomin: Things we learned

 - Dan Imhoff

Twenty-time major champion in complete control in his first outing at Roland-Garros in two years

Roger Federer, Roland-Garros 2021 first round©️ Cédric Lecocq/FFT

In a masterly and efficient display on his return to Roland-Garros, Roger Federer is comfortably through to the second round following a straight-sets ledger against qualifier Denis Istomin.

The eighth seed coasted to a 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 victory over the Uzbekistani former world No.33 in just 95 minutes on Court Phillipe-Chatrier.

Here are the key things we learned from the Swiss great’s opening round.

Swiss serves notice

Doubts swirled whether the rust would take a little longer to budge, following Federer’s defeat in his only lead-up event on clay to Pablo Andujar in Geneva.

This would be only his fourth match in 16 months and after two knee surgeries that rust was to be expected. The Swiss, though, put paid to any questions whether he would be ready in time for his Roland-Garros return on Monday.

In his first Grand Slam outing since falling to Novak Djokovic 487 days ago in the 2020 Australian Open semi-finals, he was on song from the off.

Roger Federer, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Authoritative and sustained, it was a particularly impressive start for the 39-year-old as he collected 80 per cent of points on serve, including eight aces, and never faced a break point.

His 48 winners were more than double his unforced errors and 30 more than his opponent’s. The early signs were good and they would want to be as Federer's next assignment is against former world No.3 Marin Cilic, the man he denied for his Wimbledon 2017 and Australian Open 2018 crowns.

Nothing wrong with Federer’s wheels

Where he appeared to labour at higher altitude on home soil a fortnight ago, it was a far fleet-footed Federer on the move across Chatrier on Monday.

In command from the baseline, he appeared at times to toy with his 188cm opponent when he had him on the move, consistently dotting play with drop shots.

“The legs, yes, it reminded me a little bit of Doha on a higher level because in Geneva I really struggled to play forward and be committed,” Federer said. “In Doha, like here now, I really felt like if I wanted to come to the net, if I wanted to play aggressive, I was able to do that. I think then my game looks cleaner, it looks clearer. I think it worked very well.”

“Overall I'm very happy, as well… I moved pretty well today. I also kept rallies short purposely so I wouldn't get dragged into the long rallies. Always throw in the drop shot.”

Djokovic-style boilover a bridge too far

In one of the greatest upsets in Grand Slam history, Istomin was ranked 117th when he upended then world No.2 Djokovic on Rod Laver Arena in the second round in 2017.

The Uzbekistani had won the Asia/Pacific wildcard play-off to make the main draw that year and parallels were drawn in having won through qualifying to punch his return to a Grand Slam main draw in Paris in 2021.

While a danger on his day, Istomin is now ranked No.204. Any threat of him becoming the first player since Luis Horna at Roland-Garros 18 years ago to send the Swiss packing at the first hurdle of a major were quickly snuffed out.

It would have required a first victory over the 20-time major champion in eight meetings and Federer was having none of it.

There’s a time and a place to work a crowd

The chants rang out across the lower reaches of Chatrier upon completion of his routing and Federer was clearly heartened by a return to fans in the stands. Even for as composed a customer as the Swiss, anything less than a full house takes some adjusting to in these times, not to mention the change in towel routine.

“I think the biggest difference for me was in Geneva, now looking back, is that I feel like you play a lot of points very quickly,” Federer said. “I think that's what got me at the end. I rarely took the extra two, three, four, five seconds I usually take by getting the towel or waiting for the crowd, whatever the dynamics might be.

“You might think it's silly, but it's true. I do that naturally in a big match with a lot of crowd, ask for the towel quickly because you're sweating or you need maybe a quick break, a breather.

“You feel more private when you're in that situation rather than going from one side of the court to the other for three hours. That's where I think I felt much more comfortable today because I made an effort to think about it.”