Roger Federer must have felt he was battling with two opponents in his third-round showdown on Friday. The first was an inspired Russian in no mood to go quietly, and the other was Federer himself.
The fourth seed and 2009 champion did it the hard way in the three-hour-seven-minute tussle, holding off an injured Dmitry Tursunov 7-5, 6-7(7), 6-2, 6-4, but in the process converting just four of a whopping 21 break-point opportunities.
"I'm pleased to be through. Like expected, it was not a straightforward, easy match. I knew that Dmitry was going to try different things, play aggressive, serve well and then take big cuts at the ball. That's kind of how it went," Federer said. "I think he was doing a very nice job with my slice, dictating play, and I tried to get out of it. I was trying to defend as much as I could, but I wish at times I could have played a bit more offensive and come to the net. But today was difficult because I think Dmitry keeps [you] on the back foot automatically by his big shots."
Coming into Roland Garros, Federer had only played two events on clay, reaching the final in Monte Carlo where he fell to compatriot Stan Wawrinka in three sets and losing to Frenchman Jeremy Chardy in the second round in Rome after the birth of his second set of twins. Tursunov meanwhile defeated qualifier Potito Starace and Sam Querrey, both in straight sets, to reach the third round here for the first time since 2008 and while the 31-year-old’s best results have come on hard courts – five of his seven career titles – he looked at home on Philippe Chatrier Court, sliding with ease to clock penetrating groundstrokes off both wings.
A tight first set was a portent of things to come but it went the way of the Swiss 32-year-old, who unleashed a big forehand down the line at 6-5 to draw the forehand error from the 31st seed and take the opener after 41 minutes. The second looked to be heading for a similar scoreline when back-to-back errors from the Russian and a brilliant wrong-footing backhand winner down the line brought up three set points for Federer at 6-5. He would miss all three as Tursunov held to force the tiebreak.
Jumping to a 4-1 lead, the set looked well in the former No.1’s grasp again, only for his opponent to reel him in for 4-4. Both players would then let a set point slip before Tursunov’s perseverance paid off. A sliced backhand halfway up the net from Federer was the prelude to a huge forehand down the line from the Russian, who took the 64-minute set to punish his opponent's profligacy.
The Swiss star was not done yet being his own worst enemy. Despite snatching a crucial break in the opening game of the third, it required four break points to do so but he was able to collect his thoughts as Tursunov left the court for a lengthy medical timeout while trailing 2-1 – a break which ended up taking the sting out of dogged Dmitry’s fleet-footedness.
"Where I felt it the most was that he struggled to return the serve, the reaction, left and right was maybe missing a little bit," Federer said. "But in terms of playing aggressive tennis, that he was able to do normally, in my opinion."
At the resumption of play Federer clearly started to test his opponent’s now ginger movement, throwing in a pair of drop-shot winners for 3-1 and the third set was in the bag after 41 minutes of play.
The worst of Federer’s break-point agony was still to come however, and it reared its ugly head at 2-2 in the fourth. Tursunov saved an astonishing seven break points, holding with an ace and painting a surly look of “tell me this is not happening again” on his opponent’s face. A forehand wide would hand Federer another three break points at 3-3, and in keeping with the trend, Tursunov fended off the first before the Swiss cranked up a notch with a wrong-footing forehand for 4-3.
He would take the match of frustration after three hours and seven minutes for a fourth-round shot at Latvian Ernests Gulbis. The man holding the racquet himself knows there are only so many times you can let those kind of chances go begging.