Roger Federer has found a way to beat Germany’s Dominic Kupfer at the French Open, despite being far from his best in a choppy third-round match.
Federer, 39, lacked fluency and confidence in his game before qualifying to win 7-6 (7-5) 6-7 (3-7) 7-6 (7-4) 7-5 in a near-free match at Roland Garros. .
The 20-time Swiss champion took the win after three hours and 35 minutes at 00:43 local time.
He will play Italy’s Matteo Berrettini, the ninth seed, in the round of 16.
Berrettini, 25, reached the fourth round at Roland Garros for the first time with a 7-6 (8-6), 6-3, 6-4 victory over South Korean Kwon Sun-woo.
After winning 52 goals against Kwon to continue an impressive season on clay, Madrid runner-up Berrettini will be considered the favorite against 2009 champion Federer.
Eighth seed Federer is playing in only his third tournament since January 2020 after two knee surgeries and says he is using Roland Garros to boost his fitness at Wimbledon, which begins on his favorite turf surface at the end of this month.
Federer increasingly struggled against Kupfer, ranked 59th in the world, in a grueling competition that lacked quality and was played in a soulless atmosphere without fans.
In a long opening set, Federer was unable to clinch any of five break points – including a set point in the 10th game – before a surprise double fault from Kupfer helped the Swiss break the tie.
The harsh edge, eventually, came into the opener of the second set when Federer fired a cross forehand into Kupfer’s goal to convert his third break point.
Little separated the pair, which traded three more breaks in a row, during another close and a grueling set. Powerful Kupfer managed to pull off unintended errors from the volatile Federer, who also struggled with his normally reliable serve.
Federer’s behavior became increasingly desperate after Kupfer broke in the first game of the third set and appeared to dwindle physically as the German remained in control.
Somehow, the Swiss changed the momentum in his favor out of nowhere with a break in the eighth inning, and after missing a set point in the twelfth inning, he took the third.
And it seemed that the fourth set was destined to break another tie before Federer deepened to raise his level and win the last three matches to achieve victory.
But there were no fans to celebrate the moment, which seemed especially stark when he was a player who hosted crowded stadiums for many years.
“There are still a few people here, and I don’t know who they are: the sponsors, the journalists and my team too,” Federer said.
“I love tennis and I love to play. I would probably have been more nervous if the court was full.”
‘Night matches start too late’ – does Roland Garros need to rethink its late start?
For the first time, the French Open has introduced daily night sessions consisting of one match starting at 9pm local time under floodlights at Stade Philippe Chatrier.
That means the third set didn’t start until just after 11pm, the match finally ended just before 1am, and it left many tennis fans on social media wondering who actually benefited from the late date.
None of the fans showed up in court due to the 9pm curfew imposed by the French government as part of the coronavirus restrictions.
“I think these night matches start very late,” former British top seed Laura Robson told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“They get a very quick turnaround before their next game, they’re probably going back to the hotel between 2am and 3am and then they have to reset it.
“It’s not easy, especially when your next opponent is long gone and gone.
“I can’t imagine that was what Federer was expecting when he went out to the field, to be there so late. It’s another thing to worry about. Less time to recover and less sleep, with Britney coming in.”
Only one of the six matches so far has been a women’s game – Serena Williams’s opener against Irina Camelia Bejo on Monday – and it would be upbeat to think the men’s game will only last two hours, making a late finish inevitable.
“Federer is not supposed to play this way” – Analysis
BBC tennis correspondent Russell Fuller
It was a match that will live long in the memory, albeit not always for the right reasons.
Roger Federer isn’t supposed to play that way – even though this has only been his sixth game in the past 16 months.
There was little fluency and some awful mistakes. But in his 40th year, and at nearly a quarter to 1 am on Sunday morning in an empty and empty stadium, Federer still found the key to victory.
Night sessions are here to stay. They’ll sound great in years to come – as long as they don’t start until 9pm.
But it is not fun at all when there is a curfew in the city.