Federer reassured of his decision to come to Paris

 - Dan Imhoff

Swiss great stands up to Cilic's second-round challenge to claim battle of Grand Slam champions

Roger Federer, Roland-Garros 2021 second round©️  Andre Ferreira/FFT

It is not at this early stage that one half of the four Grand Slam champions left expect to cross paths.

Next to the 'Big Three', Marin Cilic was the only other man with a major trophy to his name following the first round in Paris.

On Thursday, only three could possibly survive and it was the most senior standard-bearer – the oldest man in the draw – Roger Federer, who stepped up to let Cilic know it was his time to go.

As had been the case in 10 prior showdowns, the Croatian started as rank underdog – despite having climbed as high as world No.3 – but had hoped Federer’s lack of matches might compensate for his lack of wins leading in.

This was the only Slam where the two had never met and Federer ensured he left Court Philippe-Chatrier with the box set of victories, his 6-2, 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-2 result achieved in two hours and 35 minutes.

“I feel like I come out of a match like this and I know why it was up and down,” Federer said. “And then that I was able to attain a solid level once he did break back in the third set and things were looking dangerous for me, that I was able to step up a gear, stay with him, and then pull away from him, I think that gives me a lot of confidence.”

Federer’s only defeat to the Croatian came in straight sets in a US Open semi-final seven years ago, when Cilic went on to capture his sole major trophy.

In 2017, a blistered left foot scuppered any chance of Cilic challenging for the trophy in the Wimbledon final, while six months later, it was the Swiss who again left the Croatian reeling following a five-set defeat in the Australian Open decider.

Three years on, 13 years since they first met, Federer was at it again.

One piece of Swiss artistry notably whipped the crowd into a wolf-whistling cacophony on Thursday, when he sliced a drop-shot backhand return from head height. The shot barely cleared the net for a winner and elicited a frown of concern across his opponent’s brow.

Roger Federer, Roland-Garros 2021 second round© Julien Crosnier / FFT

The 2009 champion was flying freely and secured the opening set a game later, but no sooner was it in the bag before momentum swung heavily Cilic’s way.

Federer engaged in a lengthy exchange with the chair umpire after being handed a time violation for taking too long between points at 1-3. This fetching your own towel caper was taking some getting used to and chewing up valuable Swiss time.

“I just feel like it was a misunderstanding on many levels. I didn't understand it and figure it out, and I guess I'm just new to the new tour,” Federer laughed. “It was quite interesting to live through it. Got a little energy to the match, which I liked.”

Roger Federer, Roland-Garros 2021, 2nd round© Julien Crosnier / FFT

Cilic managed to hold his concentration and serve and rammed home the advantage with a double break to level the match.

This showdown ultimately hinged on the third set and it was the world No.47 who faltered on a double fault to direct the tiebreak in Federer’s favour.

Another double fault cost him dearly in the fourth as he conceded an early break and it was enough to sound his death knell as Federer pulled clear.

A third-round meeting with German world No.59 Dominik Koepfer is next for the No.3 seed and the chance to put his refurbished knee to the test again.

“For me, my knee, the good thing is that I got a lot of information out of a match like this,” Federer said. “We will keep on getting information tomorrow and the next day, so I hope I can back it up with another good match.

“And whatever the outcome is, I know it was definitely the right choice to come here to Paris, which I'm very happy about.”