Still reeling from the exit of the second seed, Wimbledon braced itself for another shock tonight as Roger Federer went down two sets to love to Julien Benneteau, the 30-year-old Frenchman who had beaten the Swiss once before. But the 16-time Grand Slam champion fought back, defeating Benneteau, 4-6, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-1 to keep his campaign at the 2012 Championships alive.
Playing under the roof on Centre Court for the first time at Wimbledon, Federer looked to be in less than scintillating form from the start. Hovering passively behind the baseline, content to float the ball back on return and wait for Benneteau’s errors, he seemed thoroughly unprepared for the Frenchman’s aggressive hitting, frequent net approaches, and finishing volleys.
Breaking at 4-4, Benneteau served out the first set, only to be broken for 0-2 in the second. Federer thought he had held for 3-0 with a service winner, but a Hawkeye challenge pegged him back, and another backhand error saw Benneteau break back for 1-2. Federer saved break points in two games and, with Benneteau serving at 5-6, came close to stealing the set in a 12-minute game before putting a backhand volley into the net. With Federer serving to open the tiebreak, Benneteau threw in some softer backhand slices, tempting Federer to go for the big inside-out forehand winner; he did, and missed it wide. Benneteau rode that mini-break to a 7-3 victory and stood poised on the brink of his second victory over his incredibly decorated opponent.
Benneteau’s momentum was quickly interrupted when, serving at 0-0, 15-15, he slipped and fell awkwardly. With serious wrist and elbow injuries behind him, it was understandable that he would be shaken, and after Federer made a backhand up the line for break point, Benneteau double-faulted. Handed an advantage for the first time in the match, Federer inexorably raised his game, serving more effectively and beginning to dictate from inside the baseline for the first time.
He also began to mix up his shots, employing drop-shots and some slices to take the third set with ease, and he looked set to break in the fourth when he earned 0-40 on Benneteau’s serve. But a tactical misjudgement cost him the first of those break points, and Benneteau did his part to save the next two. While Federer was largely secure on serve throughout the set, he couldn’t get near Benneteau’s for the rest of it.
Twice taken to deuce at 5-6, Federer was two points away from his earliest exit at a Grand Slam since 2004, and although he held on to force a tiebreaker, he squandered the mini-break he earned for 5-4 when he approached straight at Benneteau and found his volley missing the court as a result. With Benneteau serving at 6-6, however, Federer found the deep, aggressive return he had been looking for all match, giving him the initiative, and the reply backhand went long. A big forehand forced another backhand error from Benneteau, and Federer was back on level terms at two sets apiece.
If Benneteau had a chance to take hold of the fifth set, it came in the opening game, when Federer made two poor errors. But Benneteau matched that, netting a drop shot with Federer on the run and putting a forehand wide. It could have been 0-40; instead, it was 30-30, and Federer produced two great serves to hold. Seemingly struggling with pain or injury in his legs, Benneteau gutted out a service hold, but at 1-2 Federer played his most incisive return game of the match to earn two break points, taking the first with a sensational return winner around the netpost. He quickly broke again and served the match out to love, putting the defeat he had so narrowly averted firmly behind him.