Growing up in Belgium, David Goffin could feel a larger-than-life Roger Federer looking over his shoulder on a daily basis. An avid Federer fan, Goffin had posters of his hero plastered on his bedroom wall. Coming face to face with Federer for the first time today, Goffin spent some time driving the Swiss up the wall, and even stood two points from taking a two-set lead over his tennis idol.
The Grand Slam debutant blinked briefly, though, and Federer began to find the range on his return. The world No. 3 fought back for a 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 victory in a spirited match that concluded with a shared embrace, and both men standing side-by-side for a post-match interview before an appreciative crowd.
The third-seeded Swiss has dropped a set in each of his last three matches, but showed his problem-solving skills in ending the inspired run of the lucky loser to advance to the French Open quarterfinals for the eighth straight year.
The 21-year-old Goffin has such a youthful face at first glance that he could pass for a ball kid. Many young players facing Federer for the first time have been overwhelmed by the occasion and dissolved, but Goffin displayed shrewd court craft and point-construction skills wise beyond his years. Contesting his seventh match of the event, Goffin played with the poise of a man who believed he belonged on the court with the 16-time Grand Slam champion. And when Goffin smoked a running forehand winner up the line from outside the doubles alley to seize the first set, he made believers of the crowd.
Serving at 15-30, 4-5 of the second set, Federer caught a break as Goffin netted a mid-court backhand, then floated a backhand long. The 2009 champion held serve, broke for 6-5 when Goffin followed a double fault with a pair of errors, then staved off a break point with a service winner to level the match.
Federer, who saved seven of eight break points on the day, won 16 of 17 points played on his serve in the third set. Goffin, perhaps suffering the physical and mental fatigue of his first major—which included five-set wins over veterans Radek Stepanek and Arnaud Clement—double faulted to donate a break at 2-1, then dumped a drop shot into net as Federer broke for 5-2. Turning his shoulders and driving through his forehand, Federer strung together five straight games to collect a 2-0 lead in the fourth, as Goffin's weariness seemed to grow with each step.
Closure did not come cleanly. Federer saved a break point with an ace for 3-1, and was down 0-30 as he served for the match. Striking his signature shot with confidence, Federer lashed a forehand winner down the line—his 59th winner—to wrap up an entertaining two hour and 54-minute win. Though he converted four of 13 break point chances, Federer didn't really find the range on his return until late in the second set, and will need to return better against either Tomas Berdych or Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals.