Le grand retour: Federer wins return to Paris, Slam action
By JOHN LEICESTER and SAMUEL PETREQUIN AP Sports Writers
PARIS (AP) — They feted Roger Federer with as loud as applause gets from a crowd capped at 1,000 people in Court Philippe Chatrier — when he walked out with a wave, when he hit one of his 48 winners, even when he attempted a back-to-the-net ‘tweener and hit the ball out.
This match bathed in sunshine Monday meant Federer finally was back at the French Open and back in Grand Slam action and he gave the excited fans what they wanted perhaps as much as he did: a victory.
Federer’s first competition at any major tournament in 16 months ended with him on the right side of a 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 score against qualifier Denis Istomin at the French Open as fans chanted “Ro-ger! Ro-ger!”
It was a case of many happy returns — and serves, forehands, backhands, volleys and drop shots, too.
“What a pleasure to be back,” Federer said.
Making a stunning departure was Naomi Osaka, who announced her withdrawal from the tournament. The four-time major champion said on Twitter she has suffered long bouts of depression since winning the 2018 U.S. Open.
Osaka had earlier declared she would not speak to the media during Roland Garros and was fined $15,000 after she skipped the post-match news conference following her first-round victory Sunday.
Serena Williams won in the first scheduled night session in French Open history, erasing two set points to beat Irina-Camelia Begu 7-6 (6), 6-2 under the lights.
Federer showed no signs of rust or trouble with the right knee that needed two operations last year. He produced more than twice as many winners as his 20 unforced errors and never faced a break point while improving to 8-0 against Istomin over their careers.
“Always great to be on court with this legend. To play against him is always a big (deal),” Istomin said. “I was expecting all the spectators to cheer for him.”
They sure did, with one voice from the stands shouting, “A delight, Roger! A delight!” as Federer went up 4-2 in the third set.
Federer, whose 40th birthday is Aug. 8, hadn’t appeared on the Grand Slam stage since Jan. 30, 2020, when he lost to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinals.
This was just Federer’s second trip to the French Open since 2015. In addition to last year’s absence because of the knee issues, he withdrew in 2016 citing a bad back, then sat out the clay-court circuit each of the next two years to focus on the grass-court portion of the season.
He acknowledged recently he has zero chance of claiming the trophy this time around in Paris; instead, he is hoping to tune up his game to be ready to challenge for a championship at Wimbledon, where play begins in late June.
“In a way I like this situation — that I don’t know what’s next, how my next match will be. I don’t even know who I play, to be honest,” said Federer, whose second-round opponent will be 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic. “I take it round by round, match by match.”
After rhythmic clapping accompanied Federer’s trot to the baseline for the match’s opening point, he got off to the perfect start against Istomin, who is ranked 204th and now is the owner of a seven-match Grand Slam losing streak but did upset Djokovic at the 2017 Australian Open.
Federer used a drop shot to earn a break point in the opening game, then converted it with a forehand winner, before holding to go up 2-0.
Just 1 1/2 hours later, it was over for Federer, who won the 2009 French Open for one of his 20 Grand Slam titles.
He shares that men’s record with rival Rafael Nadal, who is scheduled to play his first-round match Tuesday to open his bid for a 14th championship in Paris and tiebreaking 21st major overall. Djokovic also is slated to make his debut on Day 3 of the clay-court tournament.
Williams and Begu took the court in the twilight at 9 p.m. with the stadium stands empty. Fans are being admitted for day matches this year, but not for night sessions.
Matches at the tournament in September 2020 stretched into the night on courts with new lights, but scheduled night play is new this year.
Williams wasn’t sharp with her serve but played aggressively, charging forward when she had the chance. Facing a set point in the tiebreaker, she dashed in and from the service line ripped a nervy swinging volley for a winner.
At 39, she seeks her fourth French Open title and a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title.
Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 U.S. Open champion, departed in the afternoon with a 6-7 (1), 7-6 (2), 9-7 defeat against 85th-ranked Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia.
The reigning women’s champion, Iga Swiatek, picked up right where she left off last year: running yet another opponent this way and that in a 6-0, 7-5 victory over her best friend on the tennis circuit, Kaja Juvan.
Daniil Medvedev proved that perseverance pays, finally winning a French Open match on his fifth attempt. The second-seeded Russian, twice a runner-up at other majors, beat Alexander Bublik 6-3, 6-3, 7-5, after starting 0-4 for his French Open career.
___ AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington and AP Sports Writer Steven Wine in Miami contributed to this report.
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