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By Richard Pagliaro | Monday, May 31, 2021


Roger Federer hit electric strikes soaring past Denis Istomin 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 into the RG second round for the 15th time. Our top takeaways from Federer's win.

Photo credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty

Rhythmic clapping from the Court Philippe Chatrier crowd greeted Roger Federer as he stepped out for his Roland Garros return.

In his first French Open match in two years, Federer received a rock star's welcome to the salmon-colored stage.

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The Swiss stylist responded with creative verve and electric strikes soaring past Denis Istomin 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 into the Roland Garros second round for the 15th time.

Improvisational skills and a knack for the timely attack propelled Federer to his record-extending 363rd career Grand Slam victory—one more than Serena Williams, who can match that mark when she faces Irina-Camelia Begu in today's first official Roland Garros night session.

Contesting his 80th career major, Federer crushed it against an ideal opponent in Istomin, whom he beat for the eighth time in as many meetings.

Given Federer's 39-year-old legs and the fact he missed Roland Garros last year recovering from a second knee surgery, his fluid movement and burst closing on the ball were two of the biggest positive signs today.

In a vintage performance against an overmatched opponent, Federer showed both elegant and explosive shot-making raising his Roalnd Garros career record to 71-17.

A near-flawless Federer will face 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic in round two. Federer has won nine of their 10 prior encounter's with Cilic's lone win coming at Flushing Meadows en route to his maiden major.

Our Top 5 Takeaways from Federer's first-round win.

1. Front Foot First 

Playing his first major match since the 2020 Australian Open, Federer was in no mood to play the waiting game.

From the first ball, court-side microphones amplified the sound of his short preparation steps across the clay. The 2009 champion was quick off the mark, hit off his front foot with power and precision and exploited Istomin's deep court positioning with several drop shot winners and some stirring net rushes—Federer won 19 of 24 trips to net.

  Prescient court positioning and Federer's sharp timing—he was straddling the baseline often firing shots on the rise—saw the Swiss shrink Istomin's open court space and rob his reaction time.

2. Serve Statement 

Dotting all areas of the service box, Federer served 71 percent, smacked eight aces, dropped only four points on second serve and did not face a break point in a clean 93-minute conquest.

Setting the tone on serve at the outset, the Swiss landed 19 of 20 first serves in the opening set, winning 15 of those points, and pumped six aces. 

Statement serving empowered Federer to take control from the first strike and force Istomin to defend.

3. Style Points 

In his Geneva Open loss to 35-year-old Pablo Andujar a couple of weeks ago—a defeat that doesn't look quite as alarming after the Spaniard stunned US Open champion Dominic Thiem yesterday—Federer was frequently trying to end points squeezing his forehand closer to the lines.

Facing the 6'4" Istomin, who isn't nearly as comfortable moving on clay as Andujar, Federer showed the entire shot spectrum and worked sharper angles to great impact. He played delicate drop shots, faked the dropper to play the deeper drive, used the slice to make his lanky opponent bend and curled his forehand into obscure corners of the court.

Racing up to an Istomin re-dropper, Federer nearly wrapped his forehand flick around the net post for a down the line winner that helped him break for 5-2. Federer fired his sixth ace for set point and closed the 22-minute opening set on a three game run.

4. Dirt Cleanse 

Given Federer lost his only clay-court match of the season, it seemed likely he'd need a round or two to shake the rust from red-clay inactivity, right?

Wrong. On a dry, sunny day, Federer exploited the quicker Chatrier Court and Istomin's deep defensive positioning playing clean combinations, using the front court to great effect and breaking in Istomin's opening service games in both the first and second sets to force the world No. 204 to play catch-up all day long.

A free-flowing Federer played with the comfort of a man who knew he could hurt his opponent in multiple ways and was reveling in the process of playing different shot combinations. Federer drew aahs from fans with a flying smash and some bold backhand volleys and very nearly pulled off an 82 mph tweener pass but narrowly missed the baseline long.

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"I just felt overall much clearer, much better," Federer said. "Clearly also maybe the type of opponent allowed me to have many different ways to win the point.

"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. I always had the chance, I feel, like going back, as well, if I had to, which I did in Geneva, which didn't work out, which now in hindsight was a mistake I think."

5. Lower Expectations, Lift Level

In the lead-up to his Roland Garros return, Federer wisely downplayed expectations, even dismissing himself as a factor in the field.

"I'm just realistic that I know I will not win the French and whoever thought I could or would win it is wrong," Federer said after his Geneva Open exit.

Candidly conceding he wasn't sure how his aging body and attacking game would adjust to his first major match since the 2020 Australian Open loss to Novak Djokovic, Federer instead put the focus on enjoying the pleasure of playing on the terre battue, accruing more match play and staying sharp for grass-season where the eight-time Wimbledon winner aims to make a deep run at SW19.

In the aftermath of today's sweep, Federer reiterated Wimbledon is the goal, but was also more optimistic about extending his stay in Paris.

"I mean, look, for me coming back after many months or over a year of rehab, the light at the end of the tunnel or the measuring stick was always can I come back to a good level against good players," Federer said. "I hope Wimbledon is going to be that place. Maybe there's going to be even something here in Paris. We'll see.

"For me, just being back at Wimbledon healthy again, because honestly last year when I did the first surgery, the goal was to be there at Wimbledon last year. Then, clearly the second operation came around, the pandemic hit, and everybody missed out on Wimbledon. But I'll just be happy that I get another opportunity to play."

Federer far surpassed his Geneva performance delivering 48 winners—30 more than Istomin, who was playing his first major main-draw match since the 2019 Wimbledon. Cilic should present a tougher test though Federer should be pleased with his convincing performance today.


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