Roger Federer withdrew from Roland Garros on Sunday afternoon as the after-effects of Saturday night’s lengthy four-set match against Dominik Koepfer hit home.
The move was not wholly a surprise in the light of Federer’s comments immediately after that draining 3hr 35min win, in which he told Swiss reporters: “The question is, ‘Why take a risk if I don’t have to?’ I have to remind myself, ‘Why am I here? And what is my goal for the season?’ It’s not to win the French Open.”
With an accomplished clay-courter in Matteo Berrettini looming in the fourth round, followed by the likelihood of a quarter-final against Novak Djokovic if he managed to survive that one, Federer arguably had little to gain here.
The decision gives an insight into Federer’s planning as he builds up towards the grass-court season. He will play Halle in a week’s time, all being well, and then prepare for a crack at a record ninth Wimbledon title.
He held two Championship points last time he appeared in SW19 and, even at 39, will feel he can handle anybody on his favourite surface.
In a statement on Sunday afternoon, Federer said: “After two knee surgeries and over a year of rehabilitation it’s important that I listen to my body and make sure I don’t push myself too quickly on my road to recovery. I am thrilled to have gotten three matches under my belt. There is no greater feeling than being back on court."
Federer had looked short of his best form in his 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, 7-5 win over Germany’s Koepfer – a night match played in front of an empty stadium because of Paris’s 9pm curfew. It was a joyless occasion, finishing just shy of 12.45am, and the lack of crowd support appeared to drain Federer’s intensity. Having managed to avoid closed-doors events up until this moment, he didn’t look himself in front of empty stands – a tennis Samson shorn of all his hair.
The Roland-Garros tournament organisers have learned that Roger Federer has withdrawn from the fourth round of the tournament. #RolandGarros pic.twitter.com/BncPpTLUzl
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 6, 2021
Andy Murray was among those who complimented Federer on fighting through the match, despite the indifferent timing that contributed to his alarming tally of 63 unforced errors.
“I’m not bothered by the outcome of this match at all,” said Murray on Twitter. “Just seeing Federer at 39 off the back of two knee surgeries playing to an empty stadium at 12.30am [and] getting fired up is inspirational to me. Do what you love.”
Yet the real outcome wasn’t so much a victory for Federer as a fourth-round walkover for Berrettini. Is there a question over whether Federer should have entered the tournament in the first place, given that he wasn’t able to handle a four-set match?
This argument will certainly have its proponents, especially among those social-media obsessives who define themselves as hardcore fans of Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, and thus feel obliged to hurl brickbats at Federer whenever possible. But there are a couple of extenuating circumstances.
For one thing, the French Tennis Federation shifted this tournament back a week because of the pandemic, thus limiting everyone’s recovery time ahead of Wimbledon. For another, this could very well be Federer’s last French Open. He had surely earned the right for one last salute to the crowd – even if there was no-one there to wave to.
How the Federer v Koepfer match played out
Has Roger Federer ever endured such a joyless occasion as his third-round match against Dominik Koepfer? The Parisian curfew meant that this night match was played behind closed doors. And Federer without crowd support is like Samson without his hair.
Federer loves to compete, yes, but he also loves to entertain. Although that opportunity was denied him, he still managed to gather himself and complete a four-set victory at almost quarter to one in the morning. It was the latest-ever finish at Roland Garros, and a tribute to his drive and commitment that he came through.
How different it had been against Marin Cilic on Thursday, when Federer was playing in the daytime. That was a buzzy afternoon, full of spectacular drop shots, memorable rallies and a minor fracas with the chair umpire. This, by contrast, was flat, flat, flat.
Koepfer is a workhorse of a player with a lot in common with Great Britain’s Cameron Norrie, who had lost to a dialled-in Rafael Nadal earlier in the day. They are both left-handed, and both late developers who earned their stripes in the American college system.
They also share a high level of tenacity, which has earned Koepfer – who is 27 – the nickname of “Pitbull”. He generally likes to give the ball a hefty wallop and aim for big targets, relying on the weight of his shots to draw errors from his opponent.
This is exactly what Federer provided, particularly during the second-set tie-break that started the rot. He mislaid his first serve completely at this stage, and stacked up the massive tally of 20 unforced errors in that set alone. On a good day, he would expect to hit that many in an entire match.
As Saturday night’s match moved into its concluding stages, a watching Andy Murray expressed his admiration on Twitter.
Im not bothered by the outcome of this match at all. Just seeing Federer at 39 off the back of 2 knee surgeries playing to an empty stadium at 12.30am getting fired up is inspirational to me. Do what you ❤️
— Andy Murray (@andy_murray) June 5, 2021
One bizarre detail remains: the Pitbull became more of a Spitbull in the early stages of the fourth set, when he was broken via a narrowly missed backhand up the line. He went around the net, looked down at the mark, and then spat on it. The umpire, Renaud Lichtenstein, responded with a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.