The sight was at once so alien, and yet so familiar. Not even 24 hours had passed since Lukas Rosol's second-round swatting of Rafael Nadal when Roger Federer became locked last night in a compelling struggle for his Wimbledon survival, falling two sets behind to inspired Frenchman Julien Benneteau, the world No 32 -- but unlike Nadal, Federer survived.
The humbling of one tennis great so early in the tournament had been hard enough for the All England Club to digest; the prospect of a second suffering the same fate was almost unconscionable.
It was a surreal, febrile evening on Centre Court. The roof had remained closed all day despite glorious weather, rather mocking Wimbledon's trade description as an outdoor grass court event.
But this greenhouse-like environment engendered an extraordinary atmosphere for Federer and Benneteau's duel, as a raucous crowd began to grasp the prospect of witnessing a second seismic upset.
Swiss flags were waved zealously by the Federer disciples, but the palpable excitement in the gallery sprang from a sense of the game's old order beginning to shift decisively. Benneteau, like Rosol before him, was displaying utter fearlessness in the face of Federer's formidable weapons, lashing his forehand without restraint and demonstrating remarkable deftness at the net. He took the opening set 6-4 with a flourish, courtesy of a gigantic serve that the six-time Wimbledon champion could only fend into the net.
As the second set approached its resolution the underdog betrayed his first signs of tightness, double-faulting twice to force a tie-break. But finally he prevailed in a draining 12-minute game, holding his nerve with an exquisite selection of drop shots.
The breaker that Benneteau proceeded to play was even more impressive, as a succession of powerful serves led Federer to net tamely on the second set point. The tale of the tape would have made uncomfortable reading for Federer. At two sets in the red, he had struck a mere 13 winners to his emboldened opponent's 24.
But the precariousness of his position seemed to galvanise him. He disappeared off court for two minutes on a tactical bathroom break, before re-emerging to offer glimpses of the talent worthy of a 16-time Grand Slam champion. The third set was discharged in 28 minutes as Federer rediscovered the range of his groundstrokes, sealing a double break with his usual battery of whipping topspin backhands before wrapping it up 6-2 by holding to love.
It looked as if he had found a way in the fourth set, when a luscious forehand produced three break points, but the Frenchman again rallied to stave off the danger and it headed for a tie-break.
The tension was palpable as, in the tie-break, Federer was two points from elimination; however, he never quite went to the brink and took the game to a fifth set.
In the decider, Benneteau tired dramatically and Federer won out 4-6 6-7 6-2 7-6 6-1.
Novak Djokovic, meanwhile, also endured an early wobble before overcoming Radek Stepanek.
Stepanek, still a flamboyant maverick at 33, was dispatched back to the locker-room before a ball had even been struck when the umpire discovered that his red trainers contravened the All England Club's all-white clothing rules. The sartorial hiccup did not appear to ruffle the Czech, who won the first set, but Djokovic hit back emphatically to win 4-6 6-2 6-2 6-2.
• IRELAND'S James Cluskey yesterday captured his second doubles title of the year on the ITF Futures circuit.
The 25-year-old Dubliner and France's Fabrice Martin, the top seeds, came up trumps in the hardcourt tournament in Palma Del Rio, near Seville beating Spain's Andoni Vivanco-Guzman and Gerard Grannolers-Pujol 6-4 6-3.
Also in Palma Del Rio, Dubliner James McGee made a brave effort to overcome a 65-place deficit in the singles world rankings at the quarter-final stage. After losing the first set, 368-ranked McGee, the No 6 seed, levelled at one set all, only for No 3 seed Grannollers-Pujol to storm back to prevail 6-4 2-6 6-3.
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