Across a career of more than two decades, and hundreds and hundreds of tennis matches, Roger Federer never played in one quite like this.
Under the lights at the French Open for the first time in his career. With no fans in attendance to give him an emotional boost — due to the pandemic curfew in Paris. In a match broadcast not on NBC or even the Tennis Channel — but on the Peacock streaming service. With John McEnroe commentating from Malibu.
In the end, the 39-year-old legend survived and advanced to defeat 29-year-old German left-hander Dominik Koepfer, 7-6(5), 6-7(3), 7-6(4), 7-5 in 3 hours, 34 minutes and move into the round of 16.
Despite a heroic effort from the Koepfer, ranked No. 59 in the world, the 20-time Grand Slam champion and No. 7 seed closed the match out on his serve with a forehand winner to polite applause of just a few people who were in the stands for a match that ended at 12:45 a.m. local time.
Federer was playing just his sixth match of 2021 and just his fourth on clay. But he proved that he still has the mental and physical toughness to gut out a four-set win despite playing in the obscurity of the Parisian night with no fans cheering him on.
He will next face huge-hitting Italian Matteo Berrettini in the fourth round and with a win in that match could face world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals.
Federer, 39, Nadal, 35 and Djokovic, 34, are all still alive in the tournament and in the same half of the draw. Past the age of 30, Federer has won four Grand Slams and Nadal and Djokovic six apiece. Nadal and Djokovic both advanced earlier Saturday.
Serena Williams, who, like Federer, turns 40 later this year, will play for a spot in the fourth round on Sunday.
Koepfer entered with a 9-11 record in 2021 but with the opportunity for the bigeest win of his career, while Federer had been 3-2 after missing most of 2020 due to two knee surgeries.
Mary Carillo called it a potential “tragedy” that Federer was playing perhaps his final French Open match in front of no crowd, but it ended up not being the case. Meantime, McEnroe openly joked on the broadcast that Federer’s management team would be pleading to put the match back on NBC Universal
“It’s not helping Federer all that no one’s here,” McEnroe said, adding that the lack of a crowd was “sapping the energy” of the Swiss legend.
After there were no breaks in the first set, Federer won a tight tiebreak with a forehand winner.
Koepfer returned the favor by winning the second set in a tiebreak after Federer gifted back his early break.
The German got an early break in the third set when Federer let a ball go that he thought was out and it landed near the baseline.
Things were looking bleak in the third set but Federer awakened to earn a break and then a love-hold for 5-4. As the match progressed, he tried to play shorter points, serving and volleying and attempting winners early in the point.
Federer hung in and gutted out the third-set tiebreak, winning it on the second set point when he hit a backhand drop shot that Koepfer raced forward for only to spray it wide. Koepfer then made a choke symbol to his box.
With Koepfer serving at 1-all, 30-40 in the fourth set, he hit a backhand that was called wide by the linesperson. Koepfer walked over to the mark on the switch and spit on the mark. He was given a point penalty on Federer’s serve in the next game.
With his latest victory, Federer remains alive for his 21st major title and second French Open crown, even as he prepares to make one more run at Wimbledon where he has won eight of his 20 majors.
“By far his best shot to me is Wimbledon,” McEnroe said. “He wants to be as ready as possible for that.”