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 dropped the first two sets against 29th-seeded Julien Benneteau of France, then was two points away from losing six times, before coming all the way back Friday to pull out a 4-6, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-1 victory in the third round.
“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. You just try to play tough and focus point for point. Sounds so boring, but it’s the right thing to do out there.”
He should know.
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 3 1/2 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. “At the beginning of the third set, I was not as good as I was in the first two sets, and in 5 minutes, it’s 4-0.”
Actually, that took about 10 minutes. Still, it hardly was the last key moment. 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 night to the 100th-ranked and previously unknown Lukas Rosol was still reverberating around the All England Club.
“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.”
But Federer found an opening and barged through, saved in particular by this: He won 63 of the 80 points he served over the last three sets.
Both Djokovic — who takes on unseeded Viktor Troicki in an all-Serbian matchup Monday — and Federer — who begins Week 2 by meeting 2002 Wimbledon semifinalist Xavier Malisse — found it odd to be playing with Centre Court’s retractable roof closed as a precaution, despite a blue sky overhead.
“That’s a bit of getting used to. Indoor grass is not something we’re quite familiar with,” Federer said.
Here’s what happened: A drizzle delayed the start of play Monday, so tournament officials decided to shut the roof. By the time it was closed, and Djokovic headed out to play, the sun was out.
“I was a little bit surprised, when I saw sunshine, that the roof is closed,” Djokovic said. “Obviously, they’re relying on a forecast that I don’t think is very reliable here.”
Among those moving into the fourth round on outdoor courts: 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. Unseeded American Sam Querrey, still working his way back up the rankings after right elbow surgery a year ago, finished off a suspended second-round match, eliminating No. 21 Milos Raonic of Canada 6-7 (3), 7-6 (7), 7-6 (8), 6-4.
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 got through when No. 12 Vera Zvonareva, the 2010 Wimbledon runner-up, quit in the second set because of what she said was a respiratory infection, while 145th-ranked qualifier Camila Giorgi of Italy defeated No. 20 Nadia Petrova of Russia 6-3, 7-6 (6).
Benneteau has zero tournament titles to Federer’s 74, and only once has made it to a Grand Slam quarterfinal (which he lost, by the way, at the 2006 French Open). Ranked 32nd, Benneteau was attempting to become the first man outside No. 30 to beat Federer at a major tournament in more than nine years.
“He proved he is great. The greatest,” Benneteau said. “Technically, physically, mentally, he was exceptional.”
They’ve known each other since they were kids on the junior circuit, and Federer credited Benneteau with having played “a wonderful match, from start to finish. … Could have — or should have — gotten me.”
“If you put a million on red yesterday, it was there every single time,” Stepanek said. “He was just swinging, swinging, and, you know, it was very impressive.”
A little more than 12 hours after pulling off as shocking a result as tennis has seen in years, Rosol was back in action, albeit under far different circumstances.
Instead of the tournament’s 14,979-capacity main arena, Rosol was a short walk away at 318-seat Court 15. Instead of facing 11-time Grand Slam champion Nadal in singles, Rosol teamed with Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan against James Cerretani of the United States and Edouard Roger-Vasselin of France in a second-round doubles match between unseeded pairs.
Normally, a matchup like theirs might be watched by friends, family and some fans mainly interested in a place to sit. Given Rosol’s newfound notoriety, though, the place was standing-room only; some spectators sought out spots at adjacent Court 14 and watched from there as Rosol and Kukushkin lost in five sets.
Now everyone will be eager to find out how Rosol fares Saturday in singles on Court 12 against No. 27 Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany.
“I’m curious to see how he’s going to play tomorrow. … To me, he looked a little bit arrogant out there, so I wonder how he’ll react in his next match, if he can stay grounded,” Clijsters said. “You can beat Nadal, but if you lose the next round. …”