(MENAFN - Gulf Times) Twenty years ago, an unheralded 17-year-old Swiss named Roger Federer made his grand slam debut at the French Open, losing in four sets to then third-seed Pat Rafter in the opening round.
It was the tournament where Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf triumphed for the last time on the red clay of Paris.
Graf and Agassi went on to get married and have children, and that 1999 tournament also marked the beginning of Federer's extraordinary career, preceding 20 titles at the majors, 101 overall and cult status in tennis.
The 37-year-old returns to Roland Garros from a four-year absence, having decided to play once more on clay this season. He opens today against Italian Lorenzo Sonego.
The occasion comes 20 years after his debut, 10 years after his lone title at Roland Garros and in the dusk of his glittering career.
'I am happy to be here in Paris, he told reporters. 'I started here at 20 (years ago). I won here 10 years ago. It has been one of the greatest moments in my life, so I don't know what to expect as far as the results are concerned.
Federer is certainly not the favourite. His friendly rival Rafael Nadal has dominated the tournament since 2005 with 11 titles and just two defeats — the first loss coming in 2009 against Robin Soderling. Federer beat Soderling in the final to complete his career grand slam.
But Federer revealed that Nadal's surprise defeat made it somewhat more difficult for him, saying there was a feeling of now or never in the air after losing the previous three Paris finals against the Spaniard.
'The next nine or 10 days felt like forever, he said. 'Instead of the tournament becoming easier, it was going to become more difficult because of the pressure.
'But it was nevertheless interesting, and I felt better, and I feel proud that I was able to manage the pressure.
Federer has titles from Dubai and Miami this season. On clay, he reached the Madrid and Rome quarter-finals, pulling out in Italy as a precaution after having to play two matches in one day.
He has not played at Roland Garros since his 2015 quarter-final defeat against current world number one Novak Djokovic. He compared the situation to that of the 2017 Australian Open, which he won after half a year on the sidelines with a knee injury.
'In some ways I feel similar to maybe the Australian Open in '17. A bit of the unknown, Federer said.
'I feel like I'm playing good tennis, but is it enough or is it enough against the absolute top guys when it really comes to the crunch? I'm not sure if it's in my racquet, you know.
'But I hope I can get myself in that position deep down in the tournament against the top guys.
Federer said he won't underestimate the 73rd-ranked Sonego ahead of their centre court meeting, naming him 'someone who knows how to play on the clay.
French organizers are delighted to have Federer back as a top attraction, tweeting, 'Welcome back to Roland Garros when he had his first practice session earlier in the week.
Federer said he has trained well and has gotten used to the different body aches the play on clay provides compared to hard or grass courts.
But he has also had some time for distractions in the French capital. He was seen at an event of a famous champagne maker in an elegant dark blue suit together with supermodel Kate Moss and actresses Uma Thurman and Natalie Portman.
That also shows the long way he has come since that first-round match 20 years ago against Rafter.
'I was really happy to play against Rafter, who was one of the most popular players on the tour. He had this aura, being nice, fair play, he said.
'So it was great being able to play him on the Suzanne Lenglen Court rather than on Court 23... It was a great experience for me.