Nicolas Mahut's split step looked like a launching pad at times today. He nearly ran into the back wall in pursuit of a lob; went airborne when diving in the dirt for a whizzing pass; and bent low trying to scrape dipping volleys off his shoelaces.
The French serve-and-volleyer bounded around Court Philippe Chatrier with enthusiasm, and was three points from forcing a fifth set when Roger Federer served at 4-5. Then the third-seeded Swiss found the range on his backhand and swept the final three games to beat back a spirited challenge from the spiky-haired Mahut, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.
It was an uneven match from Federer, who offered both stretches of commanding shotmaking—he ran off 12 of 14 points to take charge of the opening set—as well as moments of sudden misfires, like as when he clanked a double fault and sprayed a forehand wide to hand Mahut set point in the second. But Federer played with confidence at crunch time, hitting his targets on key passing shots and finishing with 54 winners. The 2009 champion collected four of the first nine games at love to take the 29-minute opening set on the strength of 11 winners to one error.
Mahut's attacking game has not translated to the terre battue in the past—his wins over Andy Roddick and Martin Klizan in the first two rounds were highlights in a career of eight first-round exits in nine prior appearances—but the marathon man played with passion, running everywhere to show Federer he wasn't about to go anywhere.
Neither man managed a break point in the next set until Federer, whose first-serve percentage fell to 48 percent in the second, missed the mark with a forehand, handing Mahut set point. Mahut leaned into a backhand return and drove it down the line, seizing the set with a clenched fist. But reasserting authority in the third, Federer broke twice in succesion for 4-1, and slammed a second serve ace down the T to serve out the set at love.
When Federer broke at love for a 4-3 fourth-set lead, the end seemed imminent. But Mahut hit a dazzling backhand dropper from behind the baseline that danced away from Federer with sidespin, then broke with an inside-out forehand return for 4-4. The break roused the crowd, but Federer pressed the mute button with a pair of backhand passing shot winners, before breaking with a chip backhand return Mahut couldn't dig out of the dirt.
It's tough to find fault with the 51-4 run Federer's been on since he failed to convert a match point against Novak Djokovic in last September's U.S. Open semifinals. It's the second straight four-set match he's played in Paris, but remember what Andre Agassi was fond of saying: "You can't win a major in the first week, but you can lose it."
Next up for Federer is a fourth-round match with fresh-faced 21-year-old Belgian David Goffin.