In 2011, his spirit and body were shattered by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semi-finals. Last night, the stakes were just as high – even though the tournament is not out of the first week – because there is a creeping perception that the Federer-Nadal duopoly is slowly giving way under pressure from below.
Novak Djokovic earlier had negotiated his own tricky passage through the fifth day. The elimination of Federer after Nadal's loss to Lukas Rosol would have created mild panic among the fans of these gloriously gifted but now clearly vulnerable geniuses. For all the talk of the concentration of power at the top of the game, the sans culottes are stirring. Where the Czech upstart Rosol, ranked 100 in the world, all but blew Nadal's head off with his blunderbuss in a fifth set of unrivalled intensity on Thursday night, Benneteau, a more artful citizen, used a rapier to hurt his vaunted foe before falling just short of a kill. In the end, it was he who staggered from the scene of the fight.
Federer was determined not to lose from a perilous position and closed it out in style to win 4-6, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-1. He showed his greatness when it mattered, but his occasional weakness too. All of a sudden there is doubt about his chances, after a seamless start. He has a lot to prove now, even if he will be buoyed by his effort.
It was desperately close until all but the closing moments, and for that we had the 32nd-ranked Benneteau to thank for bringing the fight out in Federer, whose thirst for these long battles has waned over the past couple of years. For a player regarded by many as the greatest of all time his record in completed five-setters is ordinary: now 20 wins, 16 losses.
Ultimately, it was Benneteau whose body and resolve collapsed, as he twice received massage to heavy legs in the fifth set, a stretching of the regulations allowing for strictly medical attention on court. It was Federer's ability to pull him around the court that put the lactic acid and debilitating weight in those legs and he should not have been allowed the luxury of his trainer's help.
"I was cramping on my quad," Benneteau said, "so it was tough for me to serve."
"A little luck on my side, who knows?" Federer mused. "I fought all the way. Obviously he was hurt in the fifth. The fourth was so close. Julien was playing amazing tennis. I knew it was going to be difficult. He was making me doubt for most of the match. He was amazing.
"But, when you're down two sets to love, stay calm. Obviously your friends and family are freaking out. You just play point for point. It sounds boring but it's the only thing to do. I appreciate the support of my fans over so many years. Tonight, it was special." Special, as well as fraught with possibilities at almost every point in the first four sets.
The pattern was set early. Benneteau served an ace to hold then was delighted to see Federer net a regulation forehand and give him the chance to serve for the set. He began what would be a straightforward assignment against anyone else with another ace, followed it with an excellent forehand down the line and was grateful for a loose Federer forehand into the net for three set points. The world No3 found a special backhand to save the first, switched flanks to save the second and the Frenchman took a deep breath before clinching the set with a big serve wide.
"Roger has to seriously improve his game," said Boris Becker, "otherwise we're in for a long night."
And so it proved. Having dropped just nine games in two matches – two short of Jimmy Connors's 1980 record– Federer was reduced to fighting like an alleycat. Yet still he refused to sweat like his opponent, who was fraught in nearly every moment. Benneteau, whose strapped right ankle gave up on him as he slipped awkwardly in the second set, picked himself up and roared back — "I was a little shaky for a few games," he said later.
He saved three break points as Federer strove to square the match, then forcing the tie-break and watching (perhaps in disbelief) as Federer netted a backhand to go 2-0 down.
The fightback when it came was in the Federer fashion: unfussy, filled with classy strokes from the back with perfectly timed interventions at the net that confounded his opponent. The third set passed in a bit of a blur, the fourth, which led to the second tie-break, was the most dramatic of the match.
"He's like a rock," said Benneteau. "If your level is a little bit lower, he takes the opportunity. Every point against him, you cannot make a mistake.
"If you do not put the ball in the right place, you lose the point nearly every time." Simply put. And so familiar.
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image: © Jimmy Barrett