LONDON (Reuters) - 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 following an incredible 24 hours at Wimbledon on Friday.
After great rival and 11-times grand slam champion Rafa Nadal was bludgeoned out of the tournament 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-times major winner Federer, who has not lost before the fourth round of his last 33 grand slam tournaments since the 2004 French Open.
“He was hurt in the fifth but I tried in the third, fourth and fifth sets to stay alive and come back.”
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 Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei 6-1 6-4 to set up a last-16 clash with German 15th seed Sabine Lisicki, who she beat in last year’s semi-final.
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.
Throughout the day the chatter around the All England Club was dominated by second seed Nadal’s shock loss to Rosol.
From the moment the buccaneering Benneteau won the first set against Federer, however, 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 leveled the match after a nerve-jangling fourth set in which he twice served to keep alive his hopes of a record-equaling seventh Wimbledon title before clinching a tie break.
With his legs cramping Benneteau finally cracked in the decider 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,” a weary Benneteau, who was given a standing ovation by an enthralled Centre court crowd, said.
Federer admitted he was a little surprised to effectively play indoors, despite not a drop of rain falling all afternoon.
After the Centre Court roof was slid shut for the fifth-set shoot-out between Rosol and Nadal on Thursday, forecasted rain showers meant it stayed shut all day on Friday despite a sunny, if breezy afternoon in south west London.
Just as it was when Nadal was blown away, the atmosphere was electric as Federer battled for survival.
Ever the Wimbledon traditionalist, Federer said it had been a memorable moment is his career.
”I‘m happy to weather the storm out there today,“ Federer said. ”It’s always one of the best feelings coming back from two sets to love in a grand slam.
“I have been there, but obviously not with the roof closed. That made the atmosphere very special out there.”
While Federer, who faces Belgian Xavier Malisse on Monday, was just relieved to get off court, Djokovic said he did not want his match to end against Stepanek.
“When you’re playing that well you want to stay on the court,” the world number one, who dropped his first set of the tournament, said. “It was a tough match, but I think I played the second, third and fourth sets very well.”
Djokovic will face compatriot Viktor Troicki next.
Editing by Ed Osmond