PARIS — It has been another year of big round numbers for Roger Federer. He won his 100th career singles title in Dubai in February. On Friday, on a luminous afternoon when springtime Paris felt like the place they used to write songs about, he became the first person in tennis history to play a 400th Grand Slam singles match.
Not that he had spent months longing for this moment.
“I didn’t even know, so that tells you something,” said Federer, sounding even less impressed when informed that it was his 400th major match played, not his 400th major match won.
Still, longevity is the leitmotif of the men’s tour at the moment. The Big Four might be down to the Big Three with Andy Murray rehabilitating his postoperative hip and mulling a comeback. But the Big Three remain worthy of the capital letters, with Novak Djokovic ranked No. 1, Rafael Nadal at No. 2 and Federer at No. 3.
They are in command and contention heading into the weekend at Roland Garros, and they have navigated the draw so far with the loss of just one set.
The mild surprise is that it was Nadal who lost it, on his way to a 6-1, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory over the former top-10 player David Goffin on Friday.
Pushing Nadal, the 11-time champion in Paris, to a fourth set required a bold patch of play from Goffin: abrupt changes of pace, fast-twitch defense and drop shots in abundance. His subtle game plan could give others some ideas: It runs counter to the conventional wisdom that the only way to hurt Nadal on clay is to pound the ball to deprive him of time.
But Nadal quickly crushed the suspense out of the match and extended his record at Roland Garros to 89-2, which is no round number but still an astounding figure.
Next up for Nadal: the little-known Juan Ignacio Londero, an Argentine player ranked 78th, who is playing in his first Grand Slam tournament at age 24.
According to the Argentine newspaper La Nación, Londero was struggling in 2017 and debated leaving the tour because of financial concerns. He also reportedly explored the idea of representing Mexico, but he is now in the fourth round, after defeating the French wild card Corentin Moutet in five sets on Friday. He is guaranteed a paycheck of 243,000 euros (about $271,000).
Nadal has never faced Londero. Nor had he previously faced his first two opponents: Yannick Hanfmann and Yannick Maden. So it goes when you play for so many years — this is his 14th French Open — but there is also coincidence at work. A statistical oddity of the first week was that Federer’s and Djokovic’s first three opponents were also all first-time opponents.
The Big Three have had to spend lots of time on YouTube in the last 10 days, checking out highlights to scout unfamiliar players.
Federer had never even faced a Norwegian before, but this Norwegian, the 20-year-old Casper Ruud, at least had a familiar surname. Ruud’s father and coach, Christian Ruud, was in the French Open draw when Federer made his Grand Slam debut in 1999.
Federer lost to the Australian star Patrick Rafter in sunshine in the first round on the Suzanne Lenglen Court, where he defeated Ruud, 6-3, 6-1, 7-6 (8), in the sunshine on Friday.
Ruud has modeled his game on Nadal’s, not Federer’s: from the heavy topspin forehand to the penchant for standing deep behind the baseline to return serve.
But Federer generally did a fine job of defusing the danger and exploiting the openings: serving and volleying on second serves, and forcing Ruud to run and slide to handle his crisply sliced, low-bouncing backhand returns. Federer is attacking selectively but often on particularly significant points, and he saved a set point at 6-7 in the tiebreaker by serving and volleying.
“I’m happy I’m putting myself in a position like this in a fourth round of the French Open after not having played so many years here,” said Federer, who last played this tournament in 2015. “I think for me the first goal has been reached by getting this deep into the tournament, and knowing where the game’s at, knowing where the fitness is, the mind.”
Plenty of clay dust has swirled and settled in the 20 years since his first main-draw appearance, and Federer has been in a nostalgic mood in his return to Roland Garros. Or perhaps he’s been coaxed into a nostalgic mood by nostalgic inquisitors.
“Yes, it’s true; that’s what’s happening this week,” he said.
But Federer added that it has been pleasant to sift through the memories.
“Because I feel that my 20 years on the tour went too fast almost,” he said. “When you play against people like Casper Ruud, you ask, ‘How was it at that time?’ When I started on the tour, he was hardly born.”
Federer continued talking about nostalgia, but his gaze was drifting away from his audience toward the television monitor in the corner of the interview room that displays up-to-date scores.
“I’m looking at the score of my future opponent, so we’re still in the present here,” Federer said.
As it turned out, he will face Leonard Mayer, an unseeded 32-year-old Argentine veteran whom Federer has beaten in all three of their previous matches. Mayer won in four tight sets against ended the emotional run here by the 37-year-old Nicolas Mahut of France, ending his emotional run here.
Now Mayer will get a crack at ending Federer’s. It is hard to assess Federer’s true level, for us and even for him. He has not been pushed to five sets; he has not faced any established threats or even one of the tour’s most highly regarded youngsters.
Such duels probably lie ahead — perhaps a rematch in the quarterfinals with another 20-year-old, Stefanos Tsitsipas, the flashy and driven Greek who upset Federer in the fourth round of this year’s Australian Open.
That looked suspiciously like a changing-of-the-guard moment, and maybe it will turn out to be just that. But Federer, who has won two titles since then to push his career total to 101, still has a spring in his step and sting in his forehand.
It’s time to see how far it takes him at Roland Garros as a 37-year-old underdog.
“I’m going to try to play as free as I can,” he said.