PARIS -- Roger Federer finally cracked under the unrelenting serve of John Isner, losing 7-6 (3), 3-6, 7-6 (5) to the 13th-seeded American in the third round of the Paris Masters on Thursday.
Federer, a 17-time Grand Slam champion, looked as though he might grind out a win, saving all six break points and fighting back from 6-2 down in the decisive tiebreaker. But the Swiss star's resistance ended when Isner -- who had 27 aces -- hit a looping serve to his backhand.
"It's tough going out of a tournament without losing your serve," the third-seeded Federer said.
Fourteen-time major winner Rafael Nadal, seeded seventh, almost followed him through the exit door, saving a match point in a 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-2 win against 11th-seeded Kevin Anderson of South Africa.
"Very tough match -- he served amazing. I feel very lucky to be through," Nadal said. "This type of match a couple of months ago I would not have had chances to win. In terms of mentality I [am] more calm."
Top-rankedNovak Djokovicwas not at his best, either, advancing to the quarterfinals by beating 14th-seededGilles Simon6-3, 7-5.
But Federer's defeat came as a genuine surprise.
Having won his sixth title of the season and 88th of his career at the Swiss Indoors on Sunday, and after racing past Italian Andreas Seppi in just 47 minutes on Wednesday, he was full of confidence.
Federer held a 5-1 record with Isner, beating him in the US Open fourth round this year.
"I thought he did very well today when he needed it," Federer said. "I thought he served great."
Federer briefly needed treatment at the start of the second set because of a sore arm but quickly recovered, insisting "it didn't affect me in the third set and it's not serious."
Isner called it one of the "top five" wins of his career.
"He's an incredible player, obviously. My favorite player and the greatest of all time," Isner said. "It was a huge win for me. I'm very proud."
Isner saved a break point in the fifth game of the third set with a deft backhand volley.
"That arguably saved the match for me," said the 30-year-old, who next faces No. 8 David Ferrer of Spain after he rallied to beat Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov 6-7 (4), 6-1, 6-4.
On Wednesday night, Anderson finished his second-round, three-set match against Austrian Dominic Thiem at 12:26 a.m. after spending 2 hours, 45 minutes on court.
This time he finished just as the clock struck midnight after 2 hours, 27 minutes on court.
But it could have been over quicker.
At 6-5 up in the tiebreak, and with Nadal on second serve, Anderson failed to finish a long rally concluded by Nadal's risky yet brilliant forehand winner into the top left corner.
The Spaniard celebrated with a yell and a fist pump, clinched the set when a rattled Anderson sent a forehand into the net and immediately broke Anderson in the third set before holding for 2-0.
Anderson fought back, however, and Nadal needed to save six break points in a grueling fourth game lasting 12 minutes.
That proved to be the end of Anderson's resistance.
After Nadal broke him again for 5-2 and clinched victory with a crisp forehand winner, the relief was evident as he tilted his head back in relief before shaking hands with the South African.
Nadal next faces No. 4 Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland, who beat Serbian Viktor Troicki 6-4, 7-5.
Earlier, Djokovic extended his winning streak to 19 matches despite dropping his serve five times.
"In sport there are days when you just lose your rhythm. You're trying a bit too much and you lose a bit of confidence," Djokovic said. "It was frustrating. ... It hasn't happened to me for a long time."
The 10-time Grand Slam champion now plays No. 5 Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, who beat No. 9 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France 6-3, 6-4.
No. 2 Andy Murray had the easiest path to the final eight, routing David Goffin 6-1, 6-0 in a prelude to the Davis Cup final later this month.
Murray, who lost only eight points on his serve and broke the 16th-seeded Belgian five times, opens Friday's quarterfinals against No. 10 Richard Gasquet.
The Frenchman advanced when Kei Nishikori of Japan retired while trailing 7-6 (3), 4-1.
The sluggish courts at Bercy’s Paris Masters are never easy on Roger Federer. For 10 years running, the Swiss arrives behind his luggage after picking up one of the trophies at Basel. No sooner does he rub away the emotional highs of his hometown tournament romp, he must steer through an early French match on adrenaline and take anti-inflammatories for his right arm.
Someone is always to waiting to ambush him, and this time it is bullet-serving John Isner, who took two tiebreakers and the third-round contest.
It's just another loss at Bercy for Federer, but once again the media narrative calls for Federer rest and healing as he sets his sights on London’s bigger WTF finals. “I'm very eager to go to London and get prepared as well as I can, Federer said in ATP World Tour. “I'm in good shape. I'm healthy, so I want that tournament to start.”
Granted, but will that extra rest be enough to knock off King Novak Djokovic for the year’s biggest non-major tournament?
Sequel or Rerun?
Suppose Federer’s 2015 tennis year is an epic film. The legendary hero returns in better shape, has sharper strategies and wields his racket like he can retake Camelot. He runs through battle lines with new angles, and he dismantles his opponents with remarkable efficiency.
Well, almost all of his opponents. The hero cannot get near the castle. There’s this monster that guards the gates, a beast so indestructible that to strike at it only makes it stronger. The more the hero swings, the faster and smarter the monster gets. The monster not only rules Camelot, but all of Europe, the Americas and Asia too.
If the theme is all too familiar, it’s because it couldn’t pass as a sequel to 2014. It’s a restoration and little more. It’s got a sleek trailer, added scenes, necessary cuts and awesome surround sound. The director has taken great pains to brush up the color or improve the digital effects.
No doubt we’ve all seen this movie at three major finals. It’s Federer falling to King Novak at 2014 Wimbledon, 2015 Wimbledon and the 2015 U.S. Open. It’s losing about 1,000 masters battles (OK, exaggeration alert here) outside the haven of Cincinnati, Ohio.
No matter the hype, and no matter how easily Federer rips through the rest of the field, King Novak is there to take the treasured hardware.
Is there anything left?
The year-end WTF finals might be more important for Federer than the other seven qualifiers. This is where the Swiss Maestro can steal one great crown from King Novak. This is where he can sound the alarm for 2016 and finally complete that bid for major No. 18, possibly as early as February in Melbourne. If anyone can stop Djokovic from a fourth consecutive year-end championship it’s the legendary Swiss with the breathless waltz for indoor tennis. Right?
Not so fast.
For all of the rest that Federer gets over the next week-and-a-half, he will need a lot more than energetic legs, renewed ambition and spirited vengeance.
He must first hope that Djokovic gets worn down, at least somewhat, by the Bercy final. There has to be a limit to King Novak’s physical and mental reserves, at least in theory. Somebody has to cut him down a notch or two, right?
Well, wasn’t that supposed to happen after King Novak lost at Montreal and Cincinnati during the U.S. Open series? Instead, Djokovic took on New York with a level of battle-hardened toughness that is still astonishing (if you are a tennis fan) and very disconcerting (if you are an ATP pro).
Rest or no rest, Federer must be lights-out. He must not only survive a close match or two at London, but he must peak with his entire game. For all of the nonsense about Federer’s sneak attacks on a server, and for all of the applause that recognizes his versatile greatness, it will still be imperative that Federer finds his best mid-30s tennis zone.
It begins and ends with strong and savvy serving. This will take relentless efficiency, because King Novak is a return master with an offensive edge that might rival the best we’ve ever seen. Federer will need supreme quick-strikes to penetrate Djokovic’s defensive acumen.
That’s just the beginning if he is to trump Djokovic’s laser groundstrokes and supreme intelligence. Federer must play the game as if he’s holding the fast-forward button, because Djokovic sees every tennis detail a few seconds ahead of real time. Federer will have to outthink Djokovic, just to have a chance to counter and find a few lapses in Djokovic’s game—repeat, that’s just the beginning.
Getting extra rest for Federer is nothing but media spin right now, and it’s an optimistic plug for his fans. The reality will be very different two weeks from now, when rest will be the least of his challenges.