WIMBLEDON, England – A day after Rafael Nadal’s stunning exit at Wimbledon, the only other men who have won the tournament since 2003 – six-time champion Roger Federer and defending champion Novak Djokovic – found themselves trailing far-less-accomplished opponents, too.
Here we go again?
Federer sure came close to following Nadal out the door, though. The owner of a record 16 major trophies, and a quarterfinalist or better at 32 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments, the third-seeded Federer lost the first two sets to 29th-seeded Julien Benneteau of France, then was two points away from losing six times before coming all the way back to pull out a 4-6, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-1 victory in the third round Friday.
“Oh, my God, it was brutal,” Federer said. “The thing, when you’re down two sets to love, is to stay calm, even though it’s hard, because people are freaking out, people are worried for you. … You don’t have, obviously, many lives left out there..”
This was the eighth time in Federer’s illustrious career that he overcame a two-set hole, including against 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro in the French Open quarterfinals 3½ weeks ago.
“Mentally, he’s a rock. He’s two sets down and he doesn’t show anything. And after that, if your level is a little bit lower – right here, right now, he takes the opportunity,” said Benneteau, whose cramping thighs were massaged by a trainer during two final-set changeovers.
With Federer serving while down 6-5 in the fourth set, Benneteau hit a forehand winner to get to 15-30, putting him two points from the upset. Federer hit a forehand winner that made it 30-all, still two points away for Benneteau. The game had two deuces, too – each one placing Benneteau that close again. But Federer held there, the crowd roaring with each point he won.
“I appreciate their support for so many years out here,” Federer said. “Tonight was special.”
In the tiebreaker, Federer was two points from being gone at 5-all, then 6-all. But on the latter, a nine-stroke exchange ended with Benneteau netting a backhand. That gave Federer his second set point – he already had wasted three others in the second set – and a powerful forehand forced a Benneteau forehand error. Federer jogged to his chair, showered with a standing ovation.
That was the beginning of the end for Benneteau, and it allowed Federer to avoid the sort of surprise that befell the second-seeded Nadal, whose five-set loss Thursday to 100th-ranked and previously unknown Lukas Rosol was still reverberating a day later.
“You cannot take for granted anybody. You can’t underestimate any opponent. I don’t think Rafa did,” said the top-seeded Djokovic, who faced Nadal in each of the previous four Grand Slam finals, winning at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, before losing at the French Open.
“It’s Wimbledon. Everybody wants to come up with their best game, especially when you’re playing one of the top players, one of the favorites,” Djokovic added. “You have nothing to lose.”
Like Federer and Nadal, Djokovic fell behind against someone he was expected to beat easily: The Serb ceded the first set, getting broken at love by No. 28 Radek Stepanek, Rosol’s Davis Cup teammate for the Czech Republic. But quick as can be, Djokovic turned things around, breaking Stepanek to begin each of the next three sets for a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 victory that moved him closer to a semifinal showdown against Federer.
Once Djokovic had Stepanek’s serve-and-volley style measured, the passing winners and shoetop-high returns started flowing. Talking about falling behind in the second set, Stepanek said: “Not a good move from my side, because once you get these top guys going, then it’s tough to stop them.”
Among those moving into the fourth round: Denis Istomin, the first player from Uzbekistan to make it that far at any Grand Slam tournament, No. 18 Richard Gasquet, No. 26 Mikhail Youzhny and No. 31 Florian Mayer.
Seeded women who won included No. 1 Maria Sharapova, No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 8 Angelique Kerber and No. 15 Sabine Lisicki. Four-time major champion Kim Clijsters advanced when No. 12 Vera Zvonareva, the 2010 Wimbledon runner-up, quit in the second set because of what she said was a respiratory infection.