With his back to the wall and US Open hopes fading fast, Roger Federer produced one of his most memorable New York performances to haul himself back from the brink and win a thrilling five-setter against mercurial Frenchman Gael Monfils.
Federer rode a wave of tumultuous support to battle back from two sets down and double match point to claim what the stoic Swiss termed an “emotional” victory over Monfils at a buzzing Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The dazzling athleticism and charisma of 20th seed Monfils, who had dominated Federer in the first two sets, won roars of encouragement from fans who love to embrace the underdog.
But with the Swiss grand slam king on the brink of elimination, the noise level rose exponentially for old favourite Federer, who seemed to reach new heights during his inspired fightback.
“I have played some amazing matches here, but maybe not enough over the years,” said Federer, winner of a men’s record 17 grand slam singles titles. “I’m happy I got through one tonight. Regardless if I won or lost it, it was really special.
“There is nobody like New Yorkers, and this stadium here is phenomenal. I think once they clamp down and get into it, it really is truly special.”
The final score read 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2, but the combatants and spectators, and even those who switched their television sets from the National Football League opener to watch the action at the National Tennis Center, will remember much more.
The crowd beseached Federer to survive a pair of match points when down 15-40 on serve in the tenth game of the fourth set and he found a way to do just that and was repaid with a thundering ovation. Monfils struck a backhand long to squander his first chance to claim victory and then Federer denied him again with a sizzling forehand winner to stay in the match.
“It was one of those moments where you got your back against the wall and hope to get a bit lucky and you hope to play exactly the right shots that you need or that he completely just messes it up,” said Federer.
“I’m very, very happy to have found a way tonight.”
From that point on, Federer took charge by holding serve for 5-5, closing out the fourth set and then breaking Monfils in the first game of the fifth.
Playing at his brilliant best after scattering unforced errors earlier in the match, the Swiss master made leaping volleys at the net and whipped winners into the corners in taking nine of the last 11 games.
Federer said he kept a positive attitude despite falling behind a supreme exhibition by the entertaining Monfils in the opening two sets.
“I still thought the finish line was far for Gael,” Federer said. “I knew I could play better tennis.
“I served well and stayed in the match and somehow turned it around. I felt great in the fifth, though. I started playing better and better as the match went on. It’s a great feeling.”
It marked the ninth time in his career that Federer escaped from a two-set deficit, the last time in the third round of Wimbledon in 2012 against another Frenchman in Julien Benneteau.
Federer will play 14th seed Marin Cilic, who blasted his way past sixth seed Tomas Berdych 6-2, 6-4, 7-6(4), for a place in the semi-finals.
Monfils, who had lost seven of nine career matches against Federer but split their last four, paid tribute to the Swiss for hanging on for dear life when the odds were stacked against him.
“That’s why he’s Roger Federer...,” said an admiring Monfils. “He start with chipping very low. I think I handled it good.
“So then he stick with longer points. It was 50-50, and then he try to come to the net very often. It was a bit better for him. Then suddenly he start to mix everything. You know, that’s why he’s the greatest player, because he can do everything.”
The Swiss said he was moved by the support from the crowd. “I felt very much a warm support for me, wanting me to go out fighting and believing that I could turn this thing around,” he said. “I think when the crowd gives you that it grows your belief that you can hit better shots, you can dig out more tough balls, you can serve better.
“All that just helps solidify your belief. I must say tonight was actually quite emotional for me. They definitely got me through the match out here tonight.”