Commentary

Fed almost joins Rafa on sidelines

Updated: June 29, 2012, 6:30 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- Roger Federer at the All England Club. Stylish. Regal. Utterly triumphant. In our mind's eye we see him winning his six titles here on a living, breathing surface that rewards his diverse game.

Perhaps we always will -- even when the reality continues to suggest otherwise.

From 2003 to '09, the Swiss champion reached the Wimbledon final for seven straight years, winning six titles. But now he finds himself trending in the wrong direction. He lost in the quarterfinals the past two years, to Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and on Friday he faced a modestly talented Julien Benneteau in the third round.

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Leon Neal/AFP/Getty ImagesFor the second straight Slam, Roger Federer had to claw his way back from a two-set hole.

Less than 24 hours after Lukas Rosol stunned No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal here in one of the greatest upsets in tournament history, Federer and Benneteau gave us another phenomenal match to savor.

The disparity in their résumés coming in was, well, enormous. Federer has won 74 titles, while Benneteau is still looking for his first. Federer has won more Grand Slam singles matches than anyone, some 208 more than Benneteau. Federer is one of the greatest grass players ever; Benneteau entered the match with a losing record on the stuff.

This was a second straight prime-time, under-the-lights thriller until the final frame. Federer won 4-6, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-1 in 3 hours, 34 minutes.

"It was a tough match -- oh, my god, it was brutal," Federer said immediately afterward. "Maybe [there was] a little luck on my side, who knows. He was hurt [left thigh] in some ways in the fifth set."

Since 2003 here at Wimbledon, when Rafa played his first Grand Slam, there have now been 33 straight majors in which either Federer or Nadal advanced to the fourth round when they were both in the draw.

Did Rafa's loss enter his mind?

"I don't know," Federer said, answering the question. "You focus on your match. Julien was playing amazing. He was making me doubt for most of the match."

Later, Federer said, "It's a great feeling coming back from 0-2 in a Grand Slam. Your spirits are lifted up and you have an opportunity to continue in the tournament."

On six previous occasions, Federer had come back from a 0-2 deficit, most recently against Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals of the recent French Open. This one felt a little like that one because del Potro was nursing an injury, too. It also happened here two years ago, when Federer took down Alejandro Falla 6-0 in the fifth.

Like Federer, Benneteau is 30 and is still playing at a high level. In fact, the No. 32-ranked Frenchman has an interesting history with Federer. When they met in Paris in 2009, Benneteau scored a surprising three-set victory. The last time Federer lost to a player ranked outside the top 30 was nine years ago, when No. 88-ranked Luis Horna beat him in the first round of the French Open.

"I hit the ball very well tonight," Benneteau said. "I knew if I wanted a chance to win I should take control of the rally. I had to be aggressive."

Was this one of his best matches ever?

"Yes," he said, "probably."

The problem, Benneteau said, was that at the end, "He doesn't make any mistakes."

Give Benneteau credit for a seriously sturdy constitution.

With the weather threatening, Wimbledon officials elected to close the roof over Centre Court before the day's first match. It was into this cozy, raucous, eerily glowing atmosphere that Benneteau and Federer stepped.

And Benneteau calmly won the first set 6-4. Like Rosol the night before, he was calm, cool -- and hitting bombs from all over the court.

The second set was a spectacular 72-minute affair, with Benneteau saving three set points in a seven-deuce game that allowed him to force a tiebreaker. This is the point where you would expect a 16-time Grand Slam singles champion to step forward.

Instead, it was the Frenchman who ran out to a 3-0 lead and won the extra session easily when Federer's backhand -- an increasingly vulnerable stroke, to be sure -- flew into the net.

Federer won the third set handily, in just 27 minutes.

Five times in the match, Benneteau found himself two points from the match -- and each time Federer saved himself. He converted a second set point in the fourth-set tiebreaker when Benneteau's forehand found the net. Energized, Federer jogged briskly toward the tunnel and a well-deserved bathroom break.

Advantage, Federer, who would now be serving first.

They were on serve at 2-1, at the 3-hour, 16-minute mark, when Benneteau called for the trainer, who massaged his tired legs.

It didn't work. Federer, leaning away, flicked a gorgeous around-the-post forehand service return that gave him a break of serve and a critical opening at 3-1. And then, inevitably, it happened again two games later and Federer was serving with a commanding 5-1 lead.

When the Frenchman tried a between-the-legs shot on a Federer lob, you knew it was over.

The last English question for Benneteau was what, years from now, he would tell his son about the match.

"I would say, 'You can be proud of your dad,'" Benneteau said. "T'was a magic moment for sure." And then he paused, his eyes welling with tears.

"It's tough," he said.

Federer showed little joy when the last ball fell. He walked slowly to the net with his head down and warmly embraced Benneteau. Later he offered a small fist pump.

"The thing is, when you're down two sets to love, you have to stay calm," Federer said. "People are freaking out, but you have to just play the points one at a time.

"Sounds boring but that's what you have to do. Tonight was special."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.