When Roger Federer played his first match at Roland Garros the domestic currency was francs rather than euros, Steffi Graf was about to claim a sixth French Open title and few had heard of the young Swiss player who would go on to become a tennis great.
It was 20 years ago when the teenage Federer made his Paris debut and lost in four sets to the experienced Australian Pat Rafter.
“I was really happy to play against Rafter, who was one of the most popular players on the tour,” Federer recalled on Friday. “It was great being able to play him on the Suzanne Lenglen Court rather than on Court 23.
“My memories go way back. I remember vividly the Martina Hingis-Steffi Graf (final that year) because Martina was basically my age and was doing things and I didn’t know how she did it. But at a young age while I was still in diapers,” he joked. “My memories go to that and to Jim Courier winning the French Open (in 1989).”
A lot of things have happened since for the elegant Federer, who has amassed 20 Grand Slam crowns and collected his 101st career title earlier this season.
After a three-year hiatus, he is back in Paris, 10 years after completing a career Grand Slam with his only title at Roland Garros, a victory he said was “one of the greatest moments in (his) life.”
“A lot of things have changed,” Federer said, gazing at the new interview room set up in the temporary press center. Organizers have launched a major overhaul of the facilities and transformed the site with more space and new courts.
“This is the first time I’m in this room. Center court looks very different. Still, I feel it is the old Roland Garros. It’s kept its flair and everything. I’m very happy to be back. Maybe a tiny bit more because I have missed the last three editions, and when you miss something in life, you’re happy to be back there again.”
Hampered by injuries and focused on Wimbledon, Federer skipped the clay-court circuit in 2017 and 2018. He came back on the slow surface this season and reached the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome.
In Madrid, he held two match points against Dominic Thiem before losing, and saved two match points in Rome against Borna Coric to reach the quarterfinals. He then withdrew because of a small problem with his right leg but gave reassuring news about his fitness on Friday.
“Being healthy is really key at this stage of my career and the last time I was really badly injured was Montreal two years ago,” he said. “I’m very happy how my body has been.”
Federer’s favorite Grand Slam tournament has always been Wimbledon, where the quick grass surface perfectly suits his attacking style. But after a few days of practice in the French capital, he feels ready for the Parisian clay.
“I have been able to train hard enough, and I’ve also had the necessary tough matches in Madrid and Rome,” he said. “I really feel like playing under pressure and playing with nerves was important for me, so I feel totally ready.”
The 37-year-old starts his campaign against Lorenzo Sonego of Italy, a quarterfinalist in Monte Carlo last month. Asked whether he thought he could win the title again, Federer gave a cautious answer.
“Don’t know. A bit of a question mark for me,” he said. “I feel like I’m playing good tennis, but is it enough against the absolute top guys when it really comes to the crunch? I’m not sure if it’s in my racket, you know. But I hope I can get myself in that position deep down in the tournament against the top guys.”
The French Open starts on Sunday.