The 20-time grand slam champion is playing the year’s second major tournament for the first time in four years and had no trouble finding his feet on the redeveloped Court Philippe Chatrier as he dispatched Italy’s Lorenzo Sonego 6-2 6-4 6-4 in just an hour and 41 minutes.
Federer had skipped the entire clay-court season for the last two years before making his return earlier this month in Madrid.
“It’s nice to be an outsider,” said Federer. “That’s how I feel, anyhow. Just see how it goes. I know when Wimbledon comes around, sure, I’ll be probably a higher favourite. That’s OK, too. I’m happy that I’m there where I am.
“But for many years it was if I don’t win, it’s a disappointment, and you explain yourself in the press room. People don’t understand why you lost. I feel like if I lost (here) first round or in the finals or wherever it is, people would be, like, ‘OK, that could have happened’.
“I like that approach for me also once in a while. It relaxes you on the bigger points maybe, or it relaxes you subconsciously as you walk through the grounds and go to practice and go to the press room.
“This is not a show I’m putting on. This is the truth. I really don’t know how far I can go in this event and I am very happy with my first round. It was a really good performance, I thought, from my side for not having played here for as long as I did.”
Federer is worshipped as fervently at Roland Garros as anywhere, and the fans showed how thrilled they were to have the 37-year-old back, with a rousing ovation as he strode onto court.
They were not to be disappointed by the tennis either, Federer deploying his full repertoire to move into 4-0 leads in both the first two sets.
Sonego, a 24-year-old Italian ranked 73rd, dug in well from there, retrieving one of the breaks in the second set and then matching his rival in the third until the crucial break at 4-4.
Federer was never under any real pressure, though, and that was just the way the Chatrier crowd wanted it.
“The reception I got today was crazy,” he said. “It was really nice to see a full stadium for a first round like this. It was a beauty. So I’m very, very happy. I feel that the public missed me, and I missed them, as well.”
Federer next faces German lucky loser Oscar Otte, who won his first grand slam match against Malek Jaziri.
Sixth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas could be waiting for Federer should he reach the quarter-finals, and the Greek comfortably moved through to the second round with a 6-2 6-2 7-6 (4) victory over Maximilian Marterer.
Elsewhere, last year’s semi-finalist, Italian 16th seed Marco Cecchinato, was a
first-round casualty, losing 2-6 6-7 (6) 6-4 6-2 6-4 to veteran Frenchman
Cecchinato, who stunned Novak Djokovic in the last eight 12 months ago, had led by two sets to love but 37-year-old wild card Mahut fought back to give the new garden court Simonne Mathieu its first classic match and take his biggest scalp on his 17th appearance in the main draw here.
Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic both won in straight sets while struggling Grigor Dimitrov let a two-set lead slip against Janko Tipsarevic before eventually prevailing in five.
There was disappointment, meanwhile, for 25th seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, who withdrew from the tournament with a groin injury.
The exciting 18-year-old Canadian is hopeful of being fit for the grass-court season.
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Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber and Venus Williams made first-round exits from the French Open on Sunday.
Neither was a particular surprise. Williams, who turns 39 next month, had a tough draw against ninth seed Elina Svitolina while Kerber has only just recovered from an ankle injury that kept her out for a month.
She looked short of matches as she was sent packing by Russian teenager Anastasia Potapova 6-4 6-2.
Kerber has never been particularly at home on clay but, having added Wimbledon to her 2016 Australian Open and US Open titles, she now only needs the Roland Garros trophy for a career Grand Slam.
The result was the best win of Potapova’s fledgling career, and the 18-year-old will face fellow teen Marketa Vondrousova in round two.
Kerber said: “She really played good. I tried my best. I was able to practise the last few days really good but it was not really a long clay-court preparation with everything.
“I was happy to at least go on court, playing a match. Of course it’s not like I hoped for.”
Williams made her French Open debut way back in 1997, reaching her only final five years later but she, too, has struggled with injury problems this year and 34 unforced errors in 18 games cost her as she went down 6-3 6-3.
The 38-year-old, now ranked 52, praised Svitolina, saying: “I thought she played really well and took her opportunities. I wish her luck in the tournament. Maybe a few too many unforced errors today.”
It was a welcome win for Svitolina, who has been sidelined with a knee problem and had not won a match since Indian Wells in March prior to arriving in Paris.
The 24-year-old, who was supported by boyfriend Gael Monfils, said: “Sometimes in a few matches in the past two months, I was not thinking about what I had to do on court. I was more away with the fairies.
“But I learned a lot during these two months, and I tried to have the right mindset which was going to help me to handle this. And today it was a good example that I can do it.”
Second seed Karolina Pliskova arrived in Paris full of confidence after winning her biggest title on clay in Rome last weekend and she made a solid start, beating American Madison Brengle 6-2 6-3.
Sloane Stephens, the runner-up 12 months ago, was also a straight-sets winner, although she was pushed to a tie-break in the second by Misaki Doi before coming through 6-3 7-6 (4).
Aside from Kerber’s defeat, it was a good day for the seeds, with Belinda Bencic, Petra Martic and Garbine Muguruza all winning.
Former champion Muguruza had the honour of playing the first match on the new show court, Simonne Mathieu, and she recovered from a set down to defeat Taylor Townsend 5-7 6-2 6-2.
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Rafael Nadal roared to French Open title number 11 with a straight-sets demolition of Dominic Thiem.
The Spaniard continued his extraordinary domination at Roland Garros with a ruthless 6-4 6-3 6-2 victory.
Seventh seed Thiem is the only player to have beaten Nadal on clay in the past two years, and he claimed he had a plan to thwart the Spaniard in Paris.
But once a competive first set went the way of the world number one, the plan became damage limitation and Nadal’s ‘undecima’ never looked in any doubt.
It was hard not to feel sympathy for Thiem, playing in his first grand slam final against a man who simply does not lose this particular battle.
If Thiem is, as he is widely regarded, the second best clay-court player in the world then he probably has a few more of these pummellings to look forward to at least until Nadal, 32, finally calls it a day.
Nadal’s incredible record in Paris now reads 86 wins and two defeats. He has won every final he has reached, and in those 11 finals he has dropped just six sets.
As if the task was not daunting enough for Thiem, the early signs were even more ominous. The Austrian won just one of the first nine points as Nadal immediately broke for 2-0.
But Thiem, unusually standing up to Nadal’s first serve, forced two break points in the next game and converted the second with a flashing forehand into the right corner.
It was the only blow he landed all afternoon. Thiem withstood a barrage of break points to hold in a marathon sixth game, which he thought he had won at 40-30 when he left a wide ball, only for the umpire to overrule the line judge.
But at 4-5 Thiem’s serve let him down badly, handing Nadal three set points. Any hopes of an upset all but disappeared along with the ragged Thiem forehand which sailed way beyond the baseline.
Thiem used to hike through the Alps in his homeland as part of his training, but the 24-year-old had an even bigger mountain to climb now.
The first set had taken 57 minutes, in stiflingly humid conditions, but there was to be no let-up for the underdog in the second.
He saved three break points in his first service game but a wayward backhand ensured Nadal took the fourth.
A hold to love showed Thiem had not given up the ghost, however unlikely a repeat of Simona Halep’s heroics from the same position a day earlier seemed.
He still occasionally inconvenienced the reigning champion, not least when a deft drop shot brought up a point to break back at 2-4.
That was swatted away with Nadal’s double-handed backhand, though, and the second set duly went the way of the favourite.
The only thing that could stop Nadal now was surely an injury. So there was mild concern when Nadal called for the trainer midway through a game, requiring treatment on what looked like cramp in his hand.
It made no difference; he could probably win this with one hand tied behind his back.
The punishment continued, with Thiem by now looking up to his coach and shrugging as another forehand whistled past him.
Two breaks later Nadal was in a familiar position, serving for the title, and when another Thiem forehand dropped long, his arms were raised in celebration, yet again.