Given that Roger Federer entered Thursday with a 16-0 career record against his opponent, Mikhail Youzhny, and a 16-0 mark in the U.S. Open's second round, one might have thought that their meeting at that stage in Flushing Meadows would have been no contest at all.
Federer set aside an uncharacteristic 68 unforced errors and what appeared to be a bad back, managing to pull out his second five-set victory in a row at the U.S. Open by coming back to edge Youzhny 1-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4, 4-6, 6-2.
It is the first time in his long career that the 36-year-old Federer has played five-setters in both the first and second rounds at a Grand Slam tournament.
"These five-set battles are actually quite a lot of fun," Federer said in his on-court interview in Arthur Ashe Stadium, "and I feel quite warmed up by now."
The No. 3-seeded Federer won five consecutive U.S. Open championships from 2004-08 and also was the runner-up twice, including two years ago. But he missed last year's tournament while taking off the second half of the season to let his back and surgically repaired left knee fully heal.
That time off paid obvious dividends: He is 37-3 with five titles in 2017, including his 18th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in January, then 19th at Wimbledon in July. Federer did not lose any of the sets he played in seven matches at the All England Club.
Things have been rather different so far in New York.
Youzhny is a former top-10 player who reached the U.S. Open semifinals in 2006 and 2010, but he is now ranked 101st.
His level of play dipped considerably over the last two sets Thursday as he appeared to be restricted by a leg cramp.
"I was feeling (badly) there for Mikhail," Federer said.
Federer was not quite himself for much of the match, either. He appeared slowed by the back that he tweaked earlier in August and his strokes were not at their usual level of crispness.
He also needed five sets to win in the first round Monday night against 19-year-old American Frances Tiafoe.
Against Youzhny, who is 35, Federer surprisingly faltered repeatedly. He got broken while serving for the second set at 5-4, and then once more while serving for the fourth set at 5-3.
While Federer did drop that second set in a tiebreaker, he recovered from his slip-up in the fourth. On his second set point, he hammered a return of a first serve that came in at 86 mph and broke to force a fifth, then engaged in a muted celebration by merely shaking his right fist.
At 1-all in the deciding set, Youzhny stumbled and collapsed to the court, grabbing at his right leg as he appeared to cramp up after whiffing on an attempted running swat at Federer's lob. Youzhny stayed down for a few moments, then grimaced and limped around for the rest of that game.
Even with Youzhny clearly compromised, Federer did not take full advantage right away.
Federer's unforced errors continued to mount in the fifth set — 11 in the first four games alone, including a badly shanked forehand on his first break point at 2-1, a netted backhand on his second, and a long forehand to let Youzhny hold there.
The next time he returned, though, Federer raced ahead love-40 and converted on his second break chance when Youzhny double-faulted to make it 4-2.