Roger Federer hadn’t played a Grand Slam match in almost 500 days, but he hardly looked rusty in his return to major tennis.
The 39-year-old 20-time Grand Slam champion look cool, calm and confident in dispatching Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan, 6-2, 6-4, 6-3, to advance to the second round of the French Open.
Federer, who last played a major match when he fell to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinals in January 2020, won his 363rd career match at a major, passing Serena Williams — for now. Serena, also 39, will play the first night match in Roland Garros history Monday evening.
“Clearly I had a good start to the match with the break,” Federer told Jon Wertheim of Tennis Channel. “And then the second set, same thing again and I was able to serve well. I thought in the first set, I served excellent. Second set, maybe a little bit more up and down on the serve but overall not too much margin in the game. I had the option always to drop shot him because he was playing far back, or I could serve and volley so I had multiple ways to win the point, which I didn’t feel at all in Geneva against [Pablo] Andujar, so overall I think it was a better match for me.
“I think I was very focused, I’m finding match rhythm again whereas in Geneva I was all over the place…There was a lot going on in Geneva so I was just much better prepared mentally.”
Thirteen days ago, playing his first clay court match since 2019, Federer lost to Andujar in three sets in Geneva and hadn’t played since. Andujar, meantime, took out No. 4 seed and two-time French Open finalist Dominic Thiem in five sets on Sunday.
Serena also lost in Parma, Italy when Andujar topped Federer, meaning both legends lost on the same day.
Now the two legends can both earn victories on Day 2 in Roland Garros. Serena opens against Irina-Camelia Begu at 9 p.m. Paris time.
Federer hit 48 winners against 20 unforced errors and converted 5-of-13 break chances against Istomin. He converted 71 percent of his first serves and won 80 percent of points on his first serve and 79 percent on his second serve.
“His movement was crisp, comfortable and confident,” two-time French Open champion Jim Courier said on Tennis Channel. “Everything looked good.”
After recovering from two knee procedures in 2020, Federer was playing just his fourth ATP match of 2021, going 2-2 so far.
He is hoping to get several matches in here to prepare him for the grasscourt season, which culminates with Wimbledon beginning just two weeks after the French.
Federer has won Wimbledon eight times and just missed a ninth title in 2019 when he blew a pair of match points against Novak Djokovic in the final.
He now stands tied with Rafael Nadal at 20 Grand Slam titles, with Djokovic breathing down their necks at 18. If Nadal wins Roland Garros for a 14th time, he will surpass Federer with 21. Serena this week said she believes Federer is the “greatest” in men’s history.
For now, Federer is happy to be in the second round — where he could face 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic.
“I think confidence always wins,” Federer said, “just because you’re playing downhill. It’s like you got the wind at your back. You’re much more clear in the head…I feel confidence wins you a lot of matches and gives you clarity. You don’t doubt yourself. You feel like it’s going to go your way. In the most important moments, you’re going to make the difference. You’re not hoping for the other guy to miss, you feel like you’re going to hit the winner.”