Roger Federer holds off Frances Tiafoe, 19, in 5 sets to advance at U.S. Open

  • Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, reacts after breaking Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during a first-round match of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. Federer won the match. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, reacts after breaking Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during a first-round match of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. Federer won the match. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, returns a shot to Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during the first round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, returns a shot to Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during the first round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, returns a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, returns to Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, returns to Roger Federer, of Switzerland, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, stretches to return a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, stretches to return a shot to Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, during the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, right, of Switzerland, and Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, shake hands after Federer won their match at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, right, of Switzerland, and Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, shake hands after Federer won their match at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Roger Federer, of Switzerland, celebrates after defeating Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roger Federer, of Switzerland, celebrates after defeating Frances Tiafoe, of the United States, at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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NEW YORK — Roger Federer already has dropped two more sets at the U.S. Open than he did during his entire two weeks en route to the title at Wimbledon.

Worried about a recent back problem that kept him from getting ready the way he usually does for a Grand Slam tournament, Federer had to overcome an early deficit and a late lapse Tuesday night to edge 19-year-old American Frances Tiafoe, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4, in a compelling first-round contest under the Arthur Ashe Stadium roof.

”I didn’t have the preparation I was hoping to get,” Federer said. ”I always knew I was going to come in feeling rusty or not great.”

The third-seeded Federer, whose most recent of five championships at Flushing Meadows came in 2008, was broken in the first game and dropped the opening set of the topsy-turvy match. He then appeared to take control by grabbing eight of nine games to seize the second and third sets. But he let that lead slip away. There was more trouble when Federer served for the match leading 5-3 in the fifth and got broken.

”I was quite up and down,” Federer said, acknowledging that he was cautious with his footwork and had some trouble seeing the ball properly. “I was misjudging distance, being a bit cautious.”

Tiafoe’s take: ”He won by the skin of his teeth.”

Federer’s initial match point came at 5-3, 40-30, but Tiafoe staved that off, then broke. He produced a cross-court forehand winner at an unbelievable angle to earn the chance, before converting it with a terrific forehand passing winner down the line. Tiafoe roared and pumped a fist, yelling to the crowd, which included his twin brother Franklin, and sprinted to the sideline for the changeover.

When he had to come back out and serve, Tiafoe was a bit flat. Federer wasted his second match point with a netted backhand. On the third – with Federer’s wife, Mirka, covering her eyes in the stands – Tiafoe hit a stumbling forehand into the net.

”In these best-of-five-set matches,” Federer said, ”you have a lot of lives sometimes.”

It was the 36-year-old Federer’s 79th career victory at the U.S. Open, equaling Andre Agassi for second-most. Only Jimmy Connors has more, with 98.

Federer played with the roof shut at Ashe for the first time. He missed last year’s tournament, when the retractable cover made its debut, because he took off the second half of 2016 to let his surgically repaired left knee and a bad back fully heal.

”It felt like people were happy to see me again,” Federer said.

In 2017, he is 36-3 with five titles, including the Australian Open and Wimbledon, where Federer won every set he played across seven matches while collecting his record eighth trophy at the All England Club and 19th Grand Slam championship overall.

For more than a half-hour Tuesday, it appeared as if Federer was still dealing with the after-effects of having tweaked his back during a loss in the hard-court final at Montreal this month. He sat out the following week’s tournament at Cincinnati.

At least, Federer said, his back was not in pain Tuesday.

“To get through a five-setter, you have to be OK, somehow,” Federer said. “So I believe this is going to give me great confidence in the body and also in my game. My hope and my belief is that it’s only going to get better from here.”

“It was more than a test, it was a good one. It was exciting.”

Tiafoe, who is from Maryland and now is based in Florida, is ranked 70th and has never been past the second round at a major tournament. Tiafoe was profiled on an HBO “Real Sports” segment earlier this year. His parents fled the war-torn West African nation of Sierra Leone before settling in Maryland and his father worked as the janitor at a tennis academy.

This was his second match against Federer. Tiafoe pushed Federer to a first-set tiebreaker when they faced each other in March at the Miami Masters before losing in two sets.

“He is the greatest of all time,” Tiafoe said after the match. “It’s something I’ll think about for a while. Eventually, I’ll win more than I lose these.”

 

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