Roger Federer narrowly avoided a stunning U.S. Open second-round exit by battling back to defeat world No. 101 Mikhail Youzhny in five sets, 6-1, 6-7, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 on Thursday.
Most expected a one-sided affair, as Federer entered the match with a perfect 16-0 record against Youzhny. But Federer struggled in defeating 19-year-old American Francis Tiafoe in five sets in the first round, which raised questions as to the state of the Swiss's health.
Federer—seeded third in the tournament and seeking his third major of the year and 20th overall—breezed through a 6-1 opening set in 26 minutes. He seemed in complete control of the match after he broke Youzhny early in the second set, but he played a sloppy game to get broken while serving for the set at 5-4. Federer continued to make far too many unforced errors, particularly on the backhand side, as Youzhny took the tiebreak by a comfortable 7-3 scoreline.
In the third, Federer's sloppy play continued as he missed multiple routine forehands and volleys. Youzhny's confidence and belief grew visibly with each successive winner, and he gave a passionate fist-pump as he took the third set in 40 minutes.
The two traded holds to open the fourth set before Federer played a solid game to break for a 3-1 lead, a moment punctuated by a "Chum Jetze!" from the five-time U.S. Open champ. After Federer consolidated the break, Youzhny called over the trainer as he appeared to be struggling with leg cramps.
Still, Youzhny managed to put together back-to-back holds to force Federer to serve for the set at 5-3. After taking a quick 30-0 lead, Federer returned to his sloppy ways as Youzhny forced a break point. Federer opted to serve-and-volley on a second serve, and Youzhny ripped a backhand crosscourt passing shot to get back on serve.
But Youzhny got tight while serving to stay in the set and Federer earned a set point. Youzhny erased that with a forehand winner, but Federer started asserting himself in groundstroke rallies and eventually broke to take the fourth 6-4.
By the fifth set, Youzhny was visibly struggling to move to his forehand side. At 1-1, 15-0, Youzhny lunged for a backhand overhand volley and went to the ground favoring the hip but opted to continue. Despite spinning in first serves at under 100 miles per hour, Youzhny fought off multiple break points to hold for 2-2. The break through in the fifth finally came in Youzhny's next service game, as he double faulted to give Federer a 4-2 lead.
Federer broke Youzhny again to take the fifth set 6-2, slamming an overhead on match point. It was a subpar performance for the World No. 3, who finished with 63 winners and 68 unforced errors.
Federer entered the U.S. Open as the favorite on the heels of a remarkable resurgent 2017 season. After he missed multiple months last year due to a back injury, Federer returned to win this year's Australian Open and Wimbledon to push his majors haul to 19. While having to play ten sets in the first two rounds is far from the ideal way to start a tournament, Federer's quest for a three-major year is still alive.