Roger Federer loses rag but maintains quality to reach French Open third round
Swiss great defeats Marin Cilic in four sets but not before a lengthy argument with the umpire
Plenty has changed since Roger Federer last competed in a Grand Slam tournament at the 2020 Australian Open. Back then, 'social distancing', 'limited capacity', and 'bio-secure bubbles' were not common phrases in sport lexicon.
While professional tennis adapted to a challenging new normal over the subsequent 18 months – one of PCR tests, hard quarantines, and vigilant health and safety measures – Federer was absent for pretty much all of it, using the time instead to undergo not one but two knee surgeries.
Forgive the 20-time Grand Slam champion, then, if he is still getting up to speed with some of those changes.
One of the most notable differences for players, at least when on-court, is the retrieval of towels. It might sound trivial, and in the grand scheme of things it is, but in the context of a tennis match the towel plays quite a key role. Wiping away sweat is but a surface function. The towel is often vital to the between-points routine, the reset. It clears the brow and the mind.
Of course, during these coronavirus times, ball kids cannot be expected to be responsible for sweaty towels so it is now on the players. But while the rest of the tennis tour has had plenty of time to adjust and develop new routines, Federer is still getting up to speed.
That much was evident during his French Open second round match against longtime rival Marin Cilic on Thursday. In the fifth game of the second set, with Federer one set to the good, the Swiss was issued a time violation, as he was toweling down, for taking too long between points while Cilic waited to serve.
Cue Federer exploding into an uncharacteristic rant at umpire Emmanuel Joseph. “I listened when you were speaking to me, now listen to me when I’m speaking to you," he said. "I don't even dare to go my towel anymore."
After the back and forth went on for a few minutes, Federer approached Cilic and asked: "Am I playing too slow?" Federer, it must be noted, is usually one of the quickest players on tour.
Explaining the whole saga to Eurosport after the match, Federer said: "Marin was upset with me because he wanted to serve at me without me being in position.
"With the towels being on either side I'm a bit confused how I'm supposed to do it. I know you are supposed to play at the server's pace but what I have to question, was Marin pushing me a little bit to play extremely fast, or was I playing extremely slow? I'm sorry if I did, but I wanted a proper explanation."
Federer, one of the coolest and most experienced operators in world sport, taken down by a towel.
Towel-gate aside, it was a masterful performance by the 2009 Roland Garros champion and he was well worthy of his 6-2, 2-6, 7-6, 6-2 victory.
"I had very good moments, in the tie-break in particular, and I served really well to finish," said Federer after hitting 47 winners. "It shows me that I still have something in the tank, it's super important for confidence."
Plenty may have changed in the tennis world but Federer's class endures, even as he approaches his 40th birthday.
World No 1 Novak Djokovic, champion in 2016, was also in emphatic form in Paris, racing into the third round with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win over Uruguay's Pablo Cuevas.
If both men maintain such impressive levels for the next two rounds, a quarter-final showdown could beckon.
In the women's draw, it was a contrasting day for the French Open's two most recent champions.
Top seed Ashleigh Barty, who opted against defending her 2019 title last year over pandemic-related health concerns, was forced to retire injured during her second-round match against Poland's Magda Linette.
The world No 1 from Australia arrived in Paris in fine form following a title in Stuttgart, but her campaign was cut short by a troublesome leg injury.
Her exit, combined with the early withdrawal of second seed Naomi Osaka has opened up the field, and defending champion Iga Swiatek looks in the mood to take full advantage after the Polish eighth seed crushed Sweden's Rebecca Peterson 6-1, 6-1.
Updated: June 3, 2021 11:21 PM