PARIS — Roger Federer entered a refurbished Court Philippe Chatrier for his first French Open match since 2015, greeted by the sun peeking through the clouds and the full-throated support of spectators in their designer sunglasses, straw hats and sweaters tied over their shoulders.
Were it permitted, perhaps some ticket-holders would have embraced Federer right then and there, delivering a kiss on each cheek, as if reunited with an old friend at a sidewalk cafe.
Alas, the welcome was limited to wild applause and enthusiastic chants of his first name — “Roh-zher! Roh-zher!” — before and during a 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 victory against Lorenzo Sonego of Italy on Sunday. The match lasted a mere 101 minutes yet Federer found enough time and space to sprinkle in some tremendous shot-making.
“The reception I got today was crazy. Was really nice to see a full stadium for a first round like this,” Federer said, comparing the atmosphere to that of a final.
“I feel,” he said, “that the public missed me. And I missed them, as well.”
Photo: Anne-christine Poujoulat / AFP / Getty Images
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His presence at the year’s second Grand Slam tournament was the highlight of Day 1, which included losses by multiple major winners Venus Williams, Angelique Kerber and Svetlana Kuznetsova, along with victories for Sloane Stephens, Garbiñe Muguruza, Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori.
The 38-year-old Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam titlist and the 2002 runner-up in Paris, exited in the first round for the fourth time in the past seven years at Roland Garros. She was broken in seven of her nine service games during a 6-3, 6-3 loss to No. 9 seed Elina Svitolina.
Federer, the owner of 20 Grand Slam titles, will turn 38 in August and, frankly, who knows how many more of these he has left?
“Not getting any younger,” he noted.
The guy certainly appeared delighted to make his return to a tournament he won a decade ago but sat out each of the previous three years. In 2016, he was sidelined by a back problem, then skipped the clay-court circuit the next two years to focus on preparing for grass and hard courts.
Not since a quarterfinal loss to Stan Wawrinka four years ago had Federer competed at Roland Garros, which is why he described himself Sunday as “quite tense at the start.”
Federer led the 73rd-ranked Sonego, who was making his French Open debut, 4-0 after less than 15 minutes, then went up a set and 4-0 in the second after 40.
While so much of the title speculation is focused on Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — both play Monday — Federer enjoys the unusual-for-him position of lowered expectations.
“It’s nice to be an outsider,” he said with an almost imperceptible shrug. “That’s how I feel, anyhow. Just see how it goes, you know. … This is not a show I’m putting on; this is the truth: I really don’t know how far I can go in this event.”
Howard Fendrich is an Associated Press writer.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/Roger-Federer-nearly-flawless-in-return-to-French-13898439.php.