Roger Federer usually graces Centre Court in a bespoke three-piece suit and dress shoes, but in his third-round match against Julien Benneteau which stretched into the night (into early Saturday morning, IST), he looked decidedly scruffy.
For the second time in two days, it appeared as if an all-time great would depart the lawns of the All-England Club. At two sets to love down, however, Federer reached for the crypt that only the best of the best have access to, and found within it the elixir that grants calm and daring, unbreakable resolution and a second life.
The Swiss master needed every last bit of it, for his opponent was playing the match of his life. This wasn’t the shock and awe of Lukas Rosol, the astonishing barrage of a gunslinger running riot.
This was grass-court tennis of such logic and simplicity that the man with the most nuanced and intuitive feel for the craft of a point couldn’t keep up.
There were no readily apparent patterns to the Frenchman’s service games. He rushed the net and he stayed back, all the while moving his serve around the box.
Tempo and direction
He was the first to change the tempo and direction of a rally, forcing Federer to react, and since Benneteau’s weight of stroke was considerable, the reactions were often short. Many of Benneteau’s returns were down the middle, giving Federer little angle to work with.
Here was an all-round player out-manoeuvring the greatest all-round player. Federer’s own returns in the first two sets were ordinary, and although he broke early in the second, and held a set point at 6-5, a nervy breaker meant he was soon staring at the very real possibility of his first first-week exit in a Grand Slam since the 2004 French Open.
“I was panicky sort of midway through the second set,” said Federer. “Because once I gave the break back and I had at 6-5 a great return situation, I just kind of felt that the breaker was going to be a rough one for me.
“So not that I expected to lose it, but I guess when I sat down, I said, ‘All right, here we go now. Match has only just started’.”
So what goes on in the mind of a great champion? How does he turn it around?
“I tried to stay calm,” he said. “It was like he’s still such a long a way from the finish line that there is no reason right now to go crazy about it.
“Let’s see how the third starts and then we’ll take it from there. I’m only going to get stronger from here.
“I have been there so many times that I also know how to handle the situation.”
Federer had two things in his favour: having been there before, as he said, he expected greatness in distress (to accomplish it is another matter); and Benneteau, who has known Federer since they were 12, was aware of it as well — he was more vulnerable to the Federer aura than the next generation which sees him differently, less reverentially.
Federer quickly ensured the third set was his, racing to a 4-0 lead, but the fourth was more complex, a typical set on grass, with a few key moments swinging it. Benneteau played at a high level, but his nerve failed him after it had saved him several times.
Once Federer won the tie-breaker 8-6, with two kickers on crucial second serves and a return of scrambled greatness at 6-6, Benneteau faded in the fifth.
Cramps were troubling the Frenchman — although he managed to hit that jump-shot two-hander of his with no apparent difficulty — and soon, Federer was through to the second week, having played his best tennis when he most needed it.