Roger Federer was left puzzled by his shock defeat to world No116 Evgeny Donskoy, who saved three match points and climbed from 1-5 down in the third-set tiebreak to claim the biggest win of his career and reach the Dubai quarter-finals.
It was quite literally lights out tennis on Centre Court on Wednesday night as both players battled for over two hours in a clash that saw one of the stadium floodlights go out, halting play briefly, and prompting a sell-out crowd to pull out their phones and turn their flashlights on.
Federer held three match points in the second-set tiebreak, was 5-2 up in the third, served for the win at 5-3, and blew a 5-1 lead in the final-set breaker to hand Donskoy a 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5) victory.
“Don't know where to start, really,” a perplexed Federer told reporters moments after stepping off the court.
“I had my chances. I should somehow close it out. Don't know how it got away, but he did very well, and yeah, it's a rough one, for sure.”
Federer was riding an 11-match winning streak in Dubai dating back to 2014 (he missed 2016 through injury) and came the Emirates after a four-week break that followed his historic Australian Open title triumph last month.
Did rust play a factor in his failure to capitalise on his opportunities?
“Look, it could be anything right now. It's tough to judge this one because I could have won in two and I'd be already almost hitting the pillow now thinking about (Lucas) Pouille (in the next round). But now here I'm explaining what didn't go well.
“Clearly can become quite negative about it, but I won't. It was a tough loss today. Donskoy did well, like I said. Just gotta move on from here. Clearly would have liked to do much better here this week.”
For Donskoy, the win was not an expected one. The 26-year-old Russian qualifier entered the clash with a 0-6 record against top-10 opposition and a 2-2 win-loss mark in matches in 2017.
“I surprised everyone I think today. Whoever wins against Roger surprises himself, I think,” said Donskoy.
The Moscow-native has been without his coach Boris Sobkin in Dubai this week but instead has been getting advice from his compatriot Mikhail Youzhny, who is a former runner-up in the Emirates and lost to Donskoy in the opening round on Tuesday.
Both Donskoy and Youzhny share Sobkin as a coach.
“When I was 200 ranking, he's trying to, he was like saying to his coach, ‘I want to help this guy’. He's a nice player,” Donskoy said of Youzhny, a former world No8.
“He was telling me move your legs, trying to do every point, every next point. That's what I had in my mind at 5-1 (down in the third-set tiebreak).”
Donskoy was aggressive with his forehand at the start but Federer broke at love then consolidated for a 4-1 lead. Federer broke again but faltered while serving for the opening set at 5-1.
The Russian held at love to shrink the gap but Federer found his groove on serve again and closed out the set in 24 minutes with three back-to-back service winners.
In the second, play was stopped for a broken light at 4-4 but they both agreed to play with one less light on and the set went to a tiebreak but not before Federer saved a break point at 5-6.
Federer went up 5-2 in the breaker and held match points at 6-4, 6-5 and 7-6. He lost all three of them as Donskoy forced a decider.
The seven-time Dubai champion broke in the sixth game of the decider but four straight games from Donskoy saw him force a tiebreak where he pulled off yet another impressive comeback to set-up a quarter-final showdown with No7 seed Lucas Pouille.
“I thought I returned way better in the first round. Today I really struggled on the return. I didn't quite really time it well,” said Federer.
“Maybe it wasn't really committed enough, I think, you know. Commitment in tennis is a big thing. In the first round I was. Today I wasn't, really. That sort of is a feeling you get and it trickles in an entire game, you know.”
The 35-year-old is next heading to Indian Wells but is unsure about his immediate plans.
“Didn't have time to speak to my coach yet. I'm more just trying to digest why I'm speaking to you about what just happened,” said the Swiss.
Earlier in the day, fourth-seeded Gael Monfils made his first Dubai quarter-final with a hard-fought 6-4, 3-6, 6-1 win over Great Britain’s Dan Evans.
The Frenchman next faces Spanish lefty Fernando Verdasco, who battled for two hours and 25 minutes before he took out his sixth-seeded compatriot Roberto Bautista Agut.
Bosnian Damir Dzumhur backed up his opening round upset over defending champion Stan Wawrinka with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Spaniard Marcel Granollers.
Two-time runner-up and No5 seed Tomas Berdych was sent packing by Dutch world No66 Robin Haase 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.