For nearly 2 1/2 hours, one of the biggest stars in the history of the sport was left for dead. Paramedics were standing by.
Federer has won more major titles than any other man, making him probably the best male player ever. Even at age 33, while he is not unbeatable, he is certainly not embarrass-able.
But on this night, on the biggest of stages and under the brightest of lights, in a
He was two sets down and finding no way to cope with a speedy, lanky opponent in a lime green shirt with matching shoes and wrist bands, who was treating him like a puppet on a string.
Gael Monfils of France, No. 24 in the world, had played great matches before, but certainly never anything like this. In his 6-4, 6-3 dominance of Federer in the first two sets, he seemed to hit every line, win every challenge on close calls, make every correct decision in a sport that demands 10 a minute.
He wasn't just beating Federer, he was coasting past him, smiling and waving on the way by.
Then, somehow, from the depths of whatever mechanism makes great athletes tick, Federer turned it around, slowly at first, almost imperceptibly. He became the cat with nine lives, the worm that keeps squirming.
Finally, 3 hours and 20 minutes after it started, with almost every person who had taken a seat at the beginning still there, he ended it. At 11:37 p.m. in New York, Monfils made a feeble stab at one last service return and it was over: Federer won, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2.
It was hard to tell who was more exhausted, Federer, Monfils or the crowd.
Someday, when he is old and mellower, the hurt is long gone, and has a couple of his grandchildren on his lap, Monfils can tell them about the night he had two match points against the great Roger Federer.
He can talk about the huge stadium, about it being his chance to get into the semifinals of a huge tournament. He can describe getting Federer's serve back at 4-5, 15-40 of the fourth set, and about hitting a backhand passing shot long.
Then he can paint a picture of his next chance, at 30-40, and how the irrepressible Federer never hesitated when he saw his opening, never came close to choking; how he measured a forehand down the line and hit it there for a winner.
He'll tell them that took it back to the saddest deuce he had ever faced. Maybe ever will.
Federer was a still a bit shaken afterward.
"I wanted to go down fighting," he said, acknowledging that he hadn't felt all that well when he faced those match points. Still, he had determined that there would be no tentative, push-it-into the-open court, no hit it and hope the other guy will miss.
So he cracked it.
Later, he talked about it.
"Facing match points, it's very frustrating for me," he said. "There you are, close to leaving the court, your head hanging down. It's so annoying. You've come so far, worked so hard to get there.
"All that stuff goes through your mind. It's the kind of stuff you would think I'd be thinking, but I'm the one who has to face it."
He was asked if he had ever felt the match was out of control, that he had no shot at coming back. He said no.
"I was getting onto his serve," he said, "and I knew I could play better."
In the third set, he made one unforced error. In the fifth set, he made two.
Overall, he made 56 and Monfils made 68. Federer, now under the tutelage of one of the best serve-and-volleyers of all time, Stefan Edberg, came to the net 74 times and won the point 53 of those.
Federer said he didn't believe he had ever come back from a match point to win in a Grand Slam tournament.
"It was one of those moments, your back against the wall," he said. "You hope you get lucky, that you hit exactly the right shot you need, or that the other guy messes it up."
Often times, once an athlete gets through an ultimate test, a huge scare like this, they play the cool guy and try to shrug off what happened as routine. Not Federer.
"Tonight was really emotional for me," he said. "I thought the crowd was incredible, that they got me through. When you have them pulling for you like that, it grows your belief. There's nothing like New York crowds."
Much was on the line for both players.
A loss could have begun yet another wave of speculation as to whether Federer is too old to win another big one. His last major title was
After Thursday night, few were thinking of him as a fading player.
Monfils was trying to reach his first U.S. Open semifinal. His best result in a major was when he got to the semis of the French in 2008. He carries a reputation as a player who has incredible skills, but has the focus of a concussed middle linebacker.
Thursday night, his incredible athleticism enhanced his effort, rather than detracting from it.
In the end, he didn't beat himself. He just was going up against a higher