Throughout a career spanning more than two decades and hundreds and hundreds of tennis matches, Roger Federer never played in one like this.
Under the lights of the French Open for the first time in his career. No fans present to give it an emotional boost, due to the pandemic curfew in Paris. At a game broadcast not on NBC or even Tennis Channel, but on the Peacock streaming service. With John McEnroe commenting from Malibu.
In the end, the 39-year-old legend survived and advanced to defeat 29-year-old German southpaw Dominik Koepfer, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4), 7. -5 in 3 hours. , 34 minutes and go to the round of 16 for the 15th time.
Despite a heroic effort by Koepfer, ranked No. 59 in the world, the 20-time Grand Slam champion and No. 7 seed closed the match with his serve with a right-wing winner to the courteous applause of a few people who they were in the stands for a game that ended at 12:45 am local time.
Federer was playing only his sixth match of 2021 and only his fourth on clay. But he showed that he still has the mental and physical toughness to pull off a four-set win despite playing in the dead of the Parisian night without fans cheering him on.
Next time he will face Italian Matteo Berrettini in the fourth round and with a win in that match he could face World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals.
Federer, 39, Nadal, 35 and Djokovic, 34, are still alive in the tournament and in the same half of the draw. In his 30s, Federer has won four Grand Slams and Nadal and Djokovic six each. Nadal and Djokovic advanced early Saturday.
Serena Williams, who, like Federer, will turn 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 a shot at the biggest win of his career, while Federer was 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 last French Open match in front of any crowd, but it ended up not being the case. Meanwhile, McEnroe openly joked on the broadcast that Federer’s management team would be pleading for the match to return to NBC Universal.
“It’s not helping Federer at all that no one is 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 close tiebreak with a forehand winner.
Koepfer returned the favor by winning the second set in a tiebreaker after Federer returned his first break.
The German got a break early in the third set when Federer dropped a ball he thought was out and landed near the baseline.
Things looked bleak in the third set, but Federer woke up to earn a break and then a 5-4 tie. As the match progressed, he tried to play shorter points, serving and volleying and trying to win early in the point.
Federer held on and eliminated the third set tiebreaker, winning on the second set point when he landed a backhand shot that Koepfer ran forward only to spray it widely. Koepfer then made a choke symbol on his box.
With Koepfer serving at 1-all, 30-40 in the fourth set, he landed a backhand that was declared open by the linesman. Koepfer walked over to the switch mark and spat on the mark. He was given a penalty point for Federer’s serve in the next game.
With his latest win, Federer is still alive for his 21st major title and his second French Open crown, even as he prepares for one more race at Wimbledon, where he has won eight of his 20 majors.
“By far his best chance for me is Wimbledon,” McEnroe said. “He wants to be as prepared as possible for that.”