Roger Federer outlasted Dominik Koepfer late into the Paris night in front of empty stands to book his spot in the last 16 of the French Open. The 20-time grand slam winner survived in three hours and 35 minutes to win 7-6 (7-5) 6-7 (3-7) 7-6 (7-4) 7-5, finishing eerily at almost 1am with no crowd after Paris' 9pm curfew forced them home hours earlier.
The 39-year-old was challenged but found a way and will next face ninth seed Matteo Berrettini in the fourth round, having secured victory in his longest match in 18 months since returning from two knee surgeries.
Koepfer dug in to hold in consecutive early service games, cheering in relief as Federer sent a backhand wide at the end of a near eight-minute back and forth.
The pressure applied by the Swiss great could not avoid a first-set tie-break, yet he never trailed and was able to take the opener following an untimely Koepfer double-fault.
The start to the second was sloppy, with Koepfer broken quickly after battling through a 29-shot rally, before three straight breaks of serve – two to love, the latter sealed with a gorgeous Koepfer return – brought him back on terms to tee up another breaker.
Federer fights back
This time, Federer was on the back foot from the outset and fell into a hole from which he could not recover, his latest tired backhand prompting a roar from Koepfer as he levelled the match.
Koepfer had Federer in serious trouble when he broke at the start of the third set, the Swiss star leaving a lobbed return that landed on the line.
The veteran worked his way back, though, and got the contest back on serve at 4-4, even going on to have a set-point opportunity on the German's serve before the match moved into another tie-break.
Just when it looked like Federer was losing control of the breaker after firing a forehand wide, the eighth seed reeled off three consecutive points, a spell that included a thumping forehand winner, to move within a set of victory.
Koepfer was visibly frustrated when he fired a backhand wide in game three of the fourth set, which allowed his opponent - who now had all the momentum - to move ahead with a break.
But nothing was proving simple for either player, as an error-strewn service game from Federer allowed Koepfer to level the fourth set at 2-2.
With the clock well past midnight, Federer dug deep in the fourth set, breaking once more in the 11th game and sealing his spot in the fourth round when the second of three match points on serve saw Koepfer find the net.
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Data Slam: A rare first for Federer
With 103 career titles and 20 majors to his name, there are not many firsts for Federer on the ATP Tour these days. However, this match produced one for the man who turns 40 this year.
This was the first time in 424 grand slam contests Federer had played a tie-break in each of the first three sets of a match. And there was almost a fourth straight breaker until he claimed that crucial late strike on the serve of Koepfer.
Koepfer – 55/40
Federer – 51/63
Koepfer – 11/4
Federer – 6/1
BREAK POINTS WON
Koepfer – 4/6
Federer – 5/14