LONDON — For all the titles and records Roger Federer owns, it was his warrior heart that rescued him from the brink of defeat against Julien Benneteau and put the tennis world back on its axis at Wimbledon on Friday.
After great rival and 11-time grand slam champion Rafael Nadal was upset by unknown Czech Lukas Rosol the previous evening, Wimbledon king Federer was two points away from following him through the exit door.
French journeyman Benneteau, a 30-year-old without a singles title to his name compared to Federer’s 74, played astonishing tennis to lead by two sets under the Centre Court roof before the Swiss maestro fought back to win 4-6, 6-7, 6-2, 7-6, 6-1.
“It was a tough match, it was brutal,” said 16-time major winner Federer, who has not lost before the fourth round of his last 33 grand slam tournaments since the 2004 French Open.
Reigning champion Novak Djokovic, the other member of the “big three” who have won 28 of the last 29 grand slam titles, also flirted with danger against eccentric Czech Radek Stepanek before reaching the fourth round.
Outfoxed for an hour by the tricky Stepanek, Djokovic fought back impressively to win in some style, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.
Women’s top seed Maria Sharapova reached the fourth round, beating Hsieh Su-wei, 6-1, 6-4, to set up a last-16 clash with 15th seed Sabine Lisicki.
Kim Clijsters also made the last 16 as she hunts a first Wimbledon crown on her farewell appearance, while in the men’s draw Federer and Djokovic were joined in round four by 18th seed Richard Gasquet, 26th seed Mikhail Youzhny and unseeded Belgian Xavier Malisse, who won a five-setter against Fernando Verdasco.
From the moment Benneteau won the first set against Federer, the possibility that the two dominant forces of the past decade would be knocked out in the space of 24 hours suddenly looked possible.
Benneteau had Federer on the run. His backhand was devastating at times, he smacked down 15 aces and the way he mixed up his game clearly flummoxed Federer, despite the Swiss player’s trademark calm demeanor.
Federer had three set points in the 12th game of the second set but Benneteau saved them all in style before surging through the tiebreak to take a two-set lead.
Third seed Federer dug in, rattled off the third set, then levelled the match after a nerve-jangling fourth set in which he twice served to keep alive his hopes of a record-equalling seventh Wimbledon title before clinching a tiebreak.
With his legs cramping, Benneteau finally cracked in the deciding set, which Federer rolled though in 26 minutes to record his eighth career comeback from two sets down.
“Mentally he’s a rock, he’s two sets down and he doesn’t show anything, after that if your level is a little bit lower, right here, right now, he takes the opportunity ... you cannot make any mistakes,” said Benneteau.