WATCH: Roger Federer addresses the media after his first-round win over Denis Istomin at Roland Garros.

The 60-second hold. The quick break. The forehand drop shot. The backhand drop shot. The fake drop shot that skids past his fooled opponent. The stuck volley. The flick-of-the-wrist pass from behind his body. The tweener rifled into the corner, just a few inches long. The 48 winners and 20 errors. The hairs all in place. The awed superlatives—“silky,” “masterful,” “easy on the eye,” “sumptuous”—gushing from commentators’ mouths. The never-in-doubt 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 win.

Yes, Roger Federer was back inside Court Philippe Chatrier, where the local fans love him more intensely than they do anywhere else. The last time he was there, in the 2019 semifinals, he was nearly floored by hurricane-level winds, and an opponent named Rafael Nadal. After that defeat, some of us wondered whether Federer might have made his last appearance at Roland Garros. No one would have been surprised if, at 37, he had started skipped straight to the grass season again. We should have known better. Every time we wonder about Federer’s possible decline, he shows up with the same flowing game intact, and hardly a half-step slower than he was in his prime.


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Still, there was reason to wonder how he would look on Monday, and how his body would hold up in a best-of-five-set match on clay. In his first return this year, in Doha, he had seemed a little shaky physically. In his second return, a few weeks ago in Geneva, he had seemed a little shaky mentally, losing in three sets to Pablo Andujar in the first round. This time, against Denis Istomin, Federer had mind and body in place. He earned 13 break points and faced none.

“I just felt overall much clearer, much better,” Federer said.

Unlike in Geneva, he said, he felt as if he was in a match rhythm today, rather than a practice rhythm, “where you just go point for point for point, let’s play a maximum amount of points.”

“I sometimes have to tell myself, take a little bit of time, walk to the towel, do something different.”

“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. I take it round by round, match by match.”


What may have helped Federer more than anything else today was his opponent. Istomin has been ranked as high as No. 22, and he beat Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open four years ago. But he’s a 34-year-old denizen of the Challenger circuit now, and he didn’t look ready for prime time today. He moved sluggishly, didn’t hit with pace or weight, and got off to an inauspicious start by double-faulting twice in the opening game.

“Clearly also maybe the type of opponent allowed me to have many different ways to win the point,” Federer said. “I knew if I came to the net, that was an option. Hitting a drop shot was always an option. Taking the ball early was an option.”

Maybe that’s why, when he was asked how he would rate his form, Federer was non-committal. He knows he’ll face stronger opposition soon.

“To be truthful, I don’t know where I stand,” Federer said. “Today was a good performance. I hope I can do it again against a different type of opponent on whatever, Thursday or whenever I play.”

“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. I take it round by round, match by match.”

For the record, Federer will face Marin Cilic in the second round; a tougher opponent, but hardly an unbeatable one.

Two years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine seeing Federer play in a half-full Chatrier. Today it made sense—the 39-year-old and the world around him are getting back on their feet, hoping for a return to full strength soon. Seeing Federer coolly controlling the action with his varied repertoire of shots, and hearing the commentators spout the superlatives that only he can inspire, it felt, for a couple of hours, as if we were in the Before Times again.