Sunday morning and a common tennis scene was being played out. The savvy older man was using variety, defense and his vast years of experience to show the ambitious youngster what it took to win a match. In this case, though, the time was less than an hour after midnight, the local facility was Court Philippe-Chatrier at Roland Garros, and the veteran happened to be Roger Federer. The young hopeful was 59th-ranked Dominik Koepfer, a 27-year-old ascending left-hander, still callow enough to make just enough of those costly miscues at the critical moments that determine the difference between a breakthrough win and an edifying defeat.

Just short of 12:45 a.m., Federer closed out this third round match, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4), 7-5. Said Federer, “I wasn't sure after the second set how much was left in the tank, so, you know, it was a good battle until then. I feel like I needed to maybe pace myself ever so slightly at that moment, especially emotionally, of not pressing too hard and wanting it too badly. So maybe just get a bit more mellow and relaxed about things and just go with the flow a little bit, let the experience take over.”

The three hour and 36-minutes long match was the kind of rough-and-tumble battle Federer knows he must fight in order to arrive in proper competitive shape. “So for me to go out tonight, sure, it wasn't easy,” said Federer.

Following his second round victory over Marin Cilic, Federer said he’d gotten a good deal of information. Versus Koepfer, he got even more. There’s one form of data obtained from a familiar opponent such as Cilic. The diagnostic is completely different versus a young opponent you’ve never played. “It was a lot of premiers for me,” said Federer. “Playing against Koep for first night session here in Paris, first time no fans in a long, long time, or ever in my career. That was definitely very unique in many ways, and I'm happy I found a way.”

Koepfer proved a test that was at once stern and sobering. “Yeah, I thought I gave everything I had,” said Koepfer. “First set was a little nerves. If I win that, maybe story looks a little different. But, yeah, I mean, tiebreaks, just one point here or there.”

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"These are all stepping stones, right, to something that is really important to me."

"These are all stepping stones, right, to something that is really important to me."

With Koepfer matching him shot for shot, point for point, rarely was Federer comfortable. Even when Federer gained notable leads, they scarcely propelled him too far forward, but instead was forced to take yet more steps. Having lost a set point with Koepfer serving at 4-5 in the first set, Federer went up 3-1 in the tiebreak, only to drop the next three points. But a Koepfer double-fault at 4-5 gave Federer just enough of a cushion to win the tiebreaker on this third set point. In the second set, Federer was up 2-0, served at 3-2 – and was broken at love. Koepfer dominated the tiebreaker.

And when Koepfer grabbed 2-0 and 4-3 leads in the third, he appeared likely to take control. In one rally after another, Koepfer drove deep off both sides, frequently running around his backhand to rip forehands. With a deep enough squint, the sight of a young lefthander pushing Federer into corners was reminiscent of all the times Rafael Nadal had tormented Federer with that sequence. But even more, Koepfer’s comfort dictating the tempo of many a rally was summoned memories of Federer’s arduous 2020 Australian Open quarterfinal win from seven match points down versus Tennys Sandgren. Like Sandgren, Koepfer was rarely intimidated by Federer’s power. But also like Sandgren, he lacked a few closing shots at the key stages.

So it was that, just as was the case versus Sandgren, Federer drew on poise, precision, variety and nimble defense to extricate himself from many a difficult situation. But Federer’s inability to consolidate leads sapped a great amount of mental and physical energy. In the third set tiebreaker, Federer served at 4-3. Early in the rally, he slashed a forehand wide. But then, Koepfer serving at 4-5, Federer scurried around the court well enough to extract an error and finished the set a point later.

Even a Koepfer wobble early in the fourth set did little for Federer. Serving at 1-all, 30-40, Koepfer struck a backhand down-the-line approach shot that was called wide. Upset by the call, Koepfer walked across the court to inspect the mark. Distraught that it was not overturned, Koepfer spit on the court and was assessed a point penalty.

But serving at 2-1, 40-15, Federer committed a slew of unforced errors. There was a drop in Federer’s energy at this point, perhaps a pragmatic awareness that it was best to focus on holding serve and prepare for the likely tiebreaker; heck, as if this were a match at his beloved Wimbledon.

Surely that scenario seemed likely when Koepfer served at 5-all, 15-love and drove a fierce approach deep to Federer’s backhand that elicited a lob. It went down the line, probably headed wide. But Koepfer opted to play it. Nearly as worse, instead of directing it powerfully angled along the leg of the hypotenuse, into the open court, Koepfer smashed it straight back at Federer, who soon enough won the point – and then rattled off the next six to go up 6-5, 40-love. On Federer’s second match point, Koepfer lined a backhand into the net.

Said Koepfer, “Yeah, it was just a match that I lost a few points here or there, but, yeah, I mean, and in the end it was probably nerves a little bit. Yeah, it is what it is.”

Federer hasn't missed a beat despite skipping the clay season

Federer hasn't missed a beat despite skipping the clay season

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Surprised as Federer might be to have gone this far, he’s also aware that unlike his fellow titans, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, each of whom won handily today, Federer’s diagnostic phase is still in progress. “Yes, I mean, it's fun in some ways not knowing, like in '17 when I came back or when nobody really knows even myself doesn't know what is possible, you know,” said Federer. “So that's got a fun angle but I would prefer it differently. I'd prefer to be in Rafa's or Novak's shoes right now where they're like, I'm feeling good. If I'm playing well, I'm winning. I don't have that feeling right now, so for me these are all stepping stones, right, to something that is really important to me. It's the season, and it's the comeback. I need matches like these, you know.”

It was nearly 2:00 a.m. by the time Federer finished his post-match press conference. How will his body feel on a day off that’s barely a day off? Next up, a very powerful opponent, Matteo Berrettini. Federer’s won both their prior matches, but they’ve never met on clay. All along, Federer has maintained he has no chance to win Roland Garros this year and that he is using the event primarily as a tune-up for Wimbledon.

“We go through these matches, you know, we analyze them highly and look on what's next and will do the same tonight and tomorrow latest, because I need to decide if I keep on playing or not or is it not too much risk at this moment to keep on pushing or is this just a perfect way to just take a rest,” said Federer. “Because I don't have the week in between here and Halle, like normal, to see, like, what's best now if you count back from Wimbledon and so forth. It's just a lot going on, but having a match like this, knowing I could have probably played a fifth set but not knowing how I will wake up tomorrow is interesting, to say the least. Yeah, it's definitely a different time right now for me.”

So it goes that Federer’s quest for information will continue. But as Koepfer learned over the course of an evening that turned into morning, information pales when compared to experience.