Roger Federer survived a second five-set battle as his dramatic US Open campaign limped on.
Having come into the tournament nursing a back problem, the Wimbledon champion insisted after narrowly scraping past teenager Frances Tiafoe in round one that he was just rusty.
And he began in fine fettle against Mikhail Youzhny but things became a lot more complicated when he failed to serve out the second set before he eventually recovered to win 6-1 6-7 (3/7) 4-6 6-4 6-2.
It is the first time in Federer’s long grand slam career that he has been taken the distance in his first two matches.
“It wasn’t always like this,” said the third seed. “I won in straights or lost in straights. These five-set battles are actually quite a lot of fun. I feel quite warmed up by now.”
Federer, who played three five-set matches to win the Australian Open in January, was helped by Youzhny’s own physical problems, with the Russian cramping in the final set.
“I haven’t played a lot of guys with cramps in the last decade so it was somewhat new,” said Federer.
“It was hard to watch. I was feeling for Mikhail. We go back to the 98 juniors here, we played each other in doubles. We’ve played a bunch of times and this was probably our best match.”
Federer and Youzhny have been battling each other on the senior circuit for 17 years, with Youzhny winning just four sets in 16 previous matches and never coming out on the winning side.
He must have been encouraged by what he saw from Federer against Tiafoe, and the 36-year-old’s protestations afterwards that his back was no longer a problem rang a little hollow.
However, having warmed up for the clash with a practice session in Central Park on Wednesday, Federer was relaxed and free-swinging as he raced through the first five games.
It seemed another easy victory against Youzhny was on the cards but there were a few worrying signs as his service speed dropped and his backhand again became wayward.
Federer was broken serving for the second set at 5-3 and Youzhny took the tie-break to level the match.
When the Russian broke again early in the third set, it was clear Federer’s army of fans were in for another anxious wait.
But Youzhny was ailing too, taking what appeared to be painkillers during the fourth set. Federer moved ahead, failed to serve it out again but then broke to level the match.
The unforced error count continued to rise from the Swiss star’s racket, eventually reaching 68, but his opponent’s physical struggles were about to get much worse.
During the third game of the decider, Youzhny collapsed to the court, apparently with cramp in his thigh. He carried on but both his movement and his serve were severely compromised.
Still Federer made heavy weather of finishing him off but did so after three hours and eight minutes to set up a clash with another veteran in Feliciano Lopez.