LONDON – Roger Federer kept his dreams of equalling Pete Sampras’s record of seven Wimbledon titles narrowly alive on Friday as top seeds Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova also reached the last 16.
Six-time champion Federer survived a huge scare, coming within just two points of crashing to his worst Wimbledon defeat in 10 years before battling from two sets down to beat French 29th seed Julien Benneteau.
Federer clinched an eighth career fightback from two sets in arrears to win 4-6, 6-7 (3/7), 6-2, 7-6 (8/6), 6-1 and will face unseeded Belgian Xavier Malisse for a place in the quarter-finals.
The Swiss star, who won the last of his record 16 Grand Slam titles at the 2010 Australian Open, was staring at his earliest defeat at the All England Club since a shock first round exit to Mario Ancic in 2002.
But after being two points away from joining Rafael Nadal on the Wimbledon scrapheap in the 12th game of the fourth set, Federer raced through the decider as Benneteau wilted and twice needed treatment by the trainer.
“It was a tight match and maybe I had a bit of luck on my side,” said Federer, who had also come back from two sets to love down to beat Juan Martin del Potro at the French Open quarter-finals this year.
“It was tough and brutal. I fought until the end to stay alive.”
Defending champion Djokovic avoided another Czech Republic Centre Court ambush with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 win over veteran Radek Stepanek.
Djokovic, like Federer, playing under the roof on the same court where Rafael Nadal had been stunned by world 100 Czech Lukas Rosol on Thursday, overcame dropping his first set of the tournament to see off 33-year-old Stepanek.
The Serb goes on to play compatriot Victor Troicki, who put out Argentine 15th seed Juan Monaco 7-5, 7-5, 6-3, for a place in the quarter-finals.
“I had break points in the first set but he came up with the big serves. It was a tough match, but I played really well in the second, third and fourth sets,” said Djokovic.
French 18th seed Richard Gasquet, a semi-finalist in 2007, beat 12th seed Nicolas Almagro 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 to claim a first win over the Spaniard in four meetings.
He will tackle German 31st seed Florian Mayer who edged Polish qualifier Jerzy Janowicz 7-6 (7/5), 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5.
Xavier Malisse of Belgium, who reached the last four in 2002, defeated Spanish 17th seed Fernando Verdasco 1-6, 7-6 (7/5), 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 to set up a date with Federer.
Denis Istomin became the first Uzbek to make the last 16 when he defeated Alejandro Falla of Colombia 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7/5).
He will face Russian 26th seed Mikhail Youzhny who saw off Serb eighth seed Janko Tipsarevic 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
Women’s top seed Sharapova cruised to a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Taiwain’s Hsieh Su-Wei as the world number one set up a Wimbledon rematch with Sabine Lisicki.
Sharapova breezed past world number 63 Hsieh despite some serious issues with her serve in the windy conditions on Court One.
The French Open champion’s reward for a typically gritty display is a last 16 meeting with German 15th seed Lisicki in a repeat of last year’s Wimbledon semi-final clash which the Russian won in straight sets.
“Playing Lisicki will be a tough one. She obviously did really well here last year. She’s a good grass-court player and I look forward to it,” said the Russian.
Former world number one Kim Clijsters, a semi-finalist in 2003 and 2006 and playing her last Wimbledon before retirement, reached the last 16 when Russian Vera Zvonareva quit with breathing problems.
Twelfth seed Zvonareva, the 2010 runner-up to Serena Williams, was trailing 6-3, 4-3 at the time.
Clijsters goes on to face German eighth seed Angelique Kerber who reached the last 16 for the first time with a 6-2, 6-3 win over American 28th seed Christina McHale.
Polish third seed Agnieszka Radwanska, a quarter-finalist in 2008 amd 2009, crushed Britain’s Heather Watson 6-0, 6-2.
Radswanska next faces Italian qualifier Camila Giorgi who defied her lowly 145 world ranking to shock 20th seed Nadia Petrova 6-3, 7-6 (8/6).
Chinese 30th seed Peng Shuai made the fourth round for the second successive year with a 6-1, 6-2 win over Dutchwoman Arantxa Rus and will face Russia’s Maria Kirilenko