Roger Federer came as close to ignominy as he has done for a while before fighting back from a set down against his friend Tommy Haas to squeak into the quarter-finals of the Cincinnati Open and retain a measure of calm before the US Open.
He remains on track to defend his title on the same side of the draw as Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, who looked commanding again in beating Julien Benneteau 6-2, 6-2 after a blip in Montreal last week. The world No2 finished with an ace, his seventh, and will be pleased with a first-service hit rate of 67%.
Federer, who has lost twice to long-shots since Sergiy Stakhovsky knocked him out of Wimbledon last month, was shaky for the second time in this tournament and, nursing the dregs of a back injury, has to be vulnerable not only here but in New York. He gives Murray a good chance of defending his US title, and concedes the obvious: the race to be No1 in the world is between Novak Djokovic, Nadal and Murray.
Had Federer lost to Haas – three years older than him at 35 – the consequences would have been dire indeed, given he has 1,000 points to defend here. The Swiss, already consigned to the edge of the elite, would have begun a slide away from the leading pack that could have endangered his place at the ATP World Tour Finals in London in November, as well as wrecking his normally rock-solid mind-set before Flushing Meadows next week. As it happened, he stayed cool when it mattered, winning 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 in an hour and 52 minutes.
"It was tough," Federer said. "The first set wasn't as bad as the score looked like. I was just a bit off the target, especially off the baseline. I served pretty good. It reminded me a little bit of the match a few years back in Paris when he was two sets up and a break and I came back. Some times you can think a little bit too much and it's hard to find rhythm. But I'm here to win matches, not look for rhythm.
"After the Wimbledon loss, I had a meeting with my team, and I thought it would be good to enter more tournaments. I went for a short vacation to reassess. But in Hamburg I had a bad back again. It's bad some times but right now I feel good again. I think I'm handling it pretty good, I'm confident it's going to go away, I really am. I need to do a lot of strengthening exercises, which I haven't done a lot in my career.
"After I lost [at Wimbledon], I really thought Andy was going to do it. He deserved it, trained really hard, and he believed as well.I'm a little sad I didn't see a bit more of Wimbledon after I lost. I hope Andy can keep it up. I guess it's between Novak, Andy and Rafa [to finish No 1 in the world at the end of the season]."
A respectful gathering of disciples sat awestruck in the sun through Federer's first-set agony, barely able to watch as he shanked and swung wildly. Haas had him by the neck at a set up and 4-2, but was suddenly met by a blizzard of long-forgotten genius as the ball at last found the middle of Federer's old Wilson 90, and he banged down three aces to go to 5-4. He held for 5-5, saving two set points, and closed it out with another break and a solid hold. In the third Federer settled back into a groove, much to the relief of the nervous customers.
David Goffin is doomed to struggle, partly because his heart is as big as his educated racket, but also because he lives in an era of larger beasts with more weapons. The Belgian, who once briefly embarrassed Federer at Roland Garros, was devoured again, this time by Djokovic. The world No1, more impressive here than in Montreal last week, dropped only two games (and seven points in the second set) to coast into the quarters 6-2, 6-0 in just 49 minutes.
This is the only Masters title the Serb has not won – he retired with a shoulder injury when trailing in the final against Murray two years ago – and he is looking very strong. Next he plays John Isner, flying the American flag solo and happy with a two-sets win over Milos Raonic, who seems stuck just behind the pack.
Earlier, the recently leapfrogged world No4 David Ferrer, the king of the under-sized fighters, could not resist the power of the seasoned Russian Dmitry Tursunov, who put six aces past him to win 6-2, 6-4. It was a worrying defeat for the Spaniard.
Tursunov, who lost to Dan Evans over five thrilling sets in the Davis Cup in Coventry this year (then just edged James Ward over the same distance), plays the seventh seed Juan Martín del Potro, but the languid Argentinian still looks to be shaking off injury and had a mid-match dip before beating Feliciano López 6-4, 6-1, 6-4.
Evans, incidentally, is in the qualifying tournament for the US Open, reward for an encouraging run of recent form, in which he reached two finals in as many weekends, losing closely each time.
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image: © The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas