Swiss great Roger Federer reached the last 16 of a Grand Slam for a record-extending 68th time after defeating Germany’s world No 59 Dominik Koepfer 7-6 (7-5) 6-7 (3-7) 7-6 (7-4) 7-5 in a late-night slugfest at the French Open.
The 2009 champion was solid in his opening two matches, with victories over qualifier Denis Istomin and former US Open champion Marin Cilic, having spent over a year out of action as he recovered from two knee surgeries.
But the 20-time Grand Slam champion’s night-session showdown with Germany’s Koepfer was not all plain sailing as he played tie-breaks in the first three sets for the first time in 424 Grand Slam matches.
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Had he lost, it could well have been the saddest of farewells to an event that has loved him arguably more than any other, and that looked a distinct possibility for nearly all of the three hours and 35 minutes they were on court.
Despite 63 unforced errors, the 39-year-old conjured up enough of his old grit and determination to stumble over the winning line at 12:43am local time, winning in four gruelling sets.
Im not bothered by the outcome of this match at all. Just seeing Federer at 39 off the back of 2 knee surgeries playing to an empty stadium at 12.30am getting fired up is inspirational to me. Do what you ❤️
Federer’s late-night finish even got three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray talking on social media.
The former world No 1 wrote on Twitter: “I’m not bothered by the outcome of this match at all. Just seeing Federer at 39 off the back of 2 knee surgeries playing to an empty stadium at 12.30am getting fired up is inspirational to me.”
German Koepfer, ranked 59, was looking to reach the fourth round at a Slam for just the second time having already posted his best result at Roland Garros.
Federer ground out the first set and was twice an early break up in the second but Koepfer kept snapping at his heels, troubling the Swiss with the weight of his ball-striking and tenacious play.
It was Koepfer who took the set after an error-strewn tie-break from Federer, and the eighth seed was in trouble when he was down a break in the third set. But he pulled it back to 4-4 and clinched the set on another tie-break.
As the clock ticked past midnight, Federer moved a break ahead early in the fourth set only to give the advantage straight back despite Koepfer, who had earlier received a warning, being given a point penalty for spitting on a ball mark.
Koepfer’s resistance ran out when he was broken for 6-5, with Federer, who turns 40 in August, finally clinching a weary victory.
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Federer will next play Matteo Berrettini who became the first Italian man to advance to the fourth round or better in all four Grand Slam tournaments in his career after coming through in straight-sets against Kwon Soon-woo of South Korea.
The ninth seed hammered down 23 aces in a 7-6 (8-6) 6-3 6-4 victory to become one of a record three Italians to reach the last 16 of a Slam for the first time.
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