Roland Garros’ new night session matches are being held behind closed doors this week because of a 9pm curfew in Paris, and Serena WilliamsNovak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have all taken their turn playing to an empty stadium.
But the sight of tennis’ biggest superstar, who attracts sell-out crowds wherever he goes, fighting for his life in the tournament in such circumstances was particularly jarring.
Had he lost, it could well have been the saddest of farewells to an event that has loved him arguably more than any other, and that looked a distinct possibility for nearly all of the three hours and 35 minutes they were on court.
Federer searched and searched for his game, finding it in patches only for the errors to creep in again, but he eventually secured a 7-6 (5) 6-7 (3) 7-6 (4) 7-5 victory and a place in the last 16 against Italy’s Matteo Berrettini.
German Koepfer, ranked 59, was looking to reach the fourth round at a slam for just the second time having already posted his best result at Roland Garros.
Federer ground out the first set and was twice an early break up in the second but Koepfer kept snapping at the 20-time grand slam champion’s heels, troubling him with the weight of his ball-striking and tenacious play.
It was Koepfer who took the set after an error-strewn tie-break from Federer, and the eighth seed was in a real hole down a break in the third set.
But he pulled it back to 4-4 and clinched the set on another tie-break – it was the first time in Federer’s long grand slam career that he had ever been involved in a match where the first three sets were decided by tie-breaks.
As the clock ticked past midnight, Federer moved a break ahead early in the fourth set only to give the advantage straight back despite Koepfer, who had earlier received a warning, being given a point penalty for spitting on a ball mark.
Koepfer’s resistance ran out when he was broken for 6-5, with Federer, who turns 40 in August, finally clinching a weary victory.