Why a Federer-Djokovic Dream Matchup Could be in Sight at the French Open

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Accomplished tennis players not only play matches to stadium-packing crowds, but also ignite expectations. Roger Federer, arguably the greatest to ever hold the tennis racket, knows that he will carry the weight of expectations every single time he enters a tournament. This edition of the French Open is no exception. Federer has been through all of that. Who would have thought back in 2010, that Federer, 11 years later, would still be eyeing the elusive feat of winning each Grand Slam on two or more occasions–something nobody in the Open Era has done.

Federer at the 2021 French Open

Hoping for some serious practice, Federer entered the ATP Geneva Open, the sole clay-court tournament he has played in the run-up to the French Open this May. A first round loss meant too little practice, and it wasn’t enough to gain confidence for the big event. Away from action for over a year and having just played two ATP 250 events, the 2009 champion entered the draw as an unlikely contender.

However, Federer surprised many a critics with a nostalgia-inducing display of sublime tennis as he made quick work of qualifier Denis Istomin in the opening round at Roland Garros. The match rekindled fond memories of the effortless Federer closing matches in style. The last time he played at a Grand Slam prior to this match was in January 2020, when he lost to Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals f the Australian Open. The Serbian has won two Australian Open titles since then, completing a second hat-trick in Melbourne.

Marin Cilic vs Roger Federer

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The second round clash with Marin Cilic was expected to be an engrossing one–despite Cilic’s current poor form–more so due to their contrasting styles. The Croat hasn’t had an outstanding year, much less a decent clay season. The match was closely fought indeed. High on an emphatic first round win, Federer started impressively, breaking early in the first set. The former World No.6 couldn’t quite recover from there, managing to win only two service games before losing the set 2-6. Cilic, however, found his game in the second set. He broke serve early. With emphatic crosscourt shots, especially off the backhand, and stunning service returns, he kept the lead to add a double break before taking the set 6-2, a mirror of the first.

The second set wasn’t free of drama. An animated Federer started a one-sided argument with the chair umpire following a call he wasn’t happy about, as Cilic did not care to embroil in it. The third set was an epic of sorts. An emboldened Cilic continued to wreak havoc with jaw-dropping service returns, keeping Federer on the back foot for most of the set. An early break didn’t deter the Croat, as he broke back to level the score 3-3. A string of service holds ensued before the set entered a tiebreak. A regrettable Cilic double fault gave Federer a minibreak, which he didn’t fail to capitalize on. Cilic recorded six double faults for the match, two of them in the third set.

The fourth set saw double faults bring Cilic’s downfall as he gave in. The final score read 6-2 2-6 7-6 6-2.

A Seemingly Negotiable Path to the Quarterfinal

Federer’s path to the quarterfinals is more or less set, with German Dominic Koepfer slated to meet him on Saturday. Either No. 9 seed Matteo Berrettini or Soon-woo Kwon await in the Round of 16. Federer is likely to win comfortably against the unseeded German, who is not much of a clay specialist and has a 53% winning percentage on the surface.

The Italian is also expected to steer clear of the potential threat his third-round opponent might present. The Korean eliminated the veteran Andreas Seppi in straight sets in the second round. In the round prior, Seppi completed a remarkable opening round upset of 20th seed Felix Auger-Aliassime. However, the 25-year-old Italian should prove to be too good for Kwon when they meet on Saturday.

Much akin to Federer, Berrettini prefers to stay close to the net as he commands a quasi-serve-and-volley style of play. He has a devastating serve that is hard to break, and a heavy forehand that can cause some inconvenience to the 8th seed. Both are right-handed all-court players, so expect this to be a close contest. They have played each other twice. Federer won both matches, though neither was on clay. Berrettini, a predominantly clay-court player, climbed up the rankings swiftly in a span of two years. Tennis runs in his blood. Although Berrettini likes clay, the Swiss, a master craftsman of the art of volleying, may have an edge over the Italian. Federer’s stroke-making has suffered a slight dip in recent years. If he can keep the errors at a minimum, it should not be too hard to break the Italian’s game.

The Djokovic-Nadal double matchup

The Swiss star’s emphatic win in the first round and an almost clean work of Cilic are indicative of his return to brutal form. He is known for a penchant for shorter rallies, propelled by his backhand slice. He has employed the deceptive drop shot and slice as effectively as ever in the first week so far. Faced with a probable meeting with two of the “Big 3” in back-to-back matches, the “Fed-Express” knows he has to preserve gas, so to speak. He will therefore want to wind up the next two matches without dropping a set–a genuine possibility.

The only occasion in his last 14 French Open appearances that Federer missed the quarterfinals was in 2014, when he fell to Ernests Gulbis in four sets. That was a monumental upset of its time. That said, 13-time champion Rafeal Nadal continues to be Federer’s greatest hurdle at Roland Garros. Will Roger Federer run deep enough to write another episode in a rivalry that has defined an era?

Main Photo from Getty.