Has Roger Federer ever endured such a joyless occasion as his third-round match against Dominik Koepfer? The Parisian 9pm curfew meant that this night match was played behind closed doors. And Federer without crowd support is like Samson without his hair.
Federer loves to compete, yes, but he also loves to entertain. Although that opportunity was denied him, he still managed to gather himself and complete a 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, 7-5 victory at almost quarter to one in the morning. It was the latest-ever finish at Roland Garros, and a tribute to his drive and commitment that he came through.
How different it had been against Marin Cilic on Thursday, when Federer was playing in the daytime. That was a buzzy afternoon, full of spectacular drop shots, memorable rallies and a minor fracas with the chair umpire. This, by contrast, was flat, flat, flat.
Koepfer is a workhorse of a player with a lot in common with Great Britain’s Cameron Norrie, who had lost to a dialled-in Rafael Nadal earlier in the day. They are both left-handed, and both late developers who earned their stripes in the American college system. They also share a high level of tenacity, which has earned Koepfer – who is 27 – the nickname of “Pitbull”. He generally likes to give the ball a hefty wallop and aim for big targets, relying on the weight of his shots to draw errors from his opponent.
This is exactly what Federer provided, particularly during the second-set tie-break that started the rot. He mislaid his first serve completely at this stage, and stacked up the massive tally of 20 unforced errors in that set alone. On a good day, he would expect to hit that many in an entire match.
But Federer managed to steady the ship, even if the 3hr 35min duration is likely to leave him a little washed out for his fourth-round meeting with Italy’s ninth seed Matteo Berrettini – a match that he will need to lift his level substantially to win.
As Saturday night’s match moved into its concluding stages, a watching Andy Murray expressed his admiration on Twitter. “I’m not bothered by the outcome of this match at all. Just seeing Federer at 39 off the back of two knee surgeries playing to an empty stadium at 12.30am [and] getting fired up is inspirational to me. Do what you love.”
One bizarre detail remains: the Pitbull became more of a Spitbull in the early stages of the fourth set, when he was broken via a narrowly missed backhand up the line. He went around the net, looked down at the mark, and then spat on it. The umpire, Renaud Lichtenstein, responded with a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.