Roger Federer escaped what would have been the most humiliating defeat of his career on Wednesday when he came back
from 1-5 down in the final set to beat Spanish qualifier Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo at the Monte Carlo Masters.
The world number one was within two points of a famous defeat before he carved out a 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (7/1) second round win over the battling world number 137 who twice had the opportunity to serve for the match.
But the astonishing match will do nothing to dampen speculation that the great Swiss player could be on the verge of decline with his latest struggles coming in a year which has seen him lose his Australian Open title and win only one trophy.
Even that came via default when Nikolay Davydenko was forced to retire with an injury in last weekend's Estoril final to hand Federer, who was laid low by glandular fever earlier this year, his 54th career crown.
Federer romped through the first set on Wednesday in just 31 minutes hitting 14 winners to his opponent's one and with breaks in the second and sixth games.
However, the top seed, runner-up to triple champion Rafael Nadal for the last two years, went spectacularly off the boil in the second set, being broken in the second game on his way to trailing 0-3 and then having to save two more break points in the fourth.
But the Spaniard went onto level the match when the Swiss went long with a service return.
Federer, who committed a huge 54 unforced errors in the tie, dropped serve in the opening game of the final set with a netted volley and again in the third game with another volley error as he quickly fell 0-4 down.
The 30-year-old Ramirez Hidalgo had chances to serve for the match at 5-2 and 5-4 but he choked twice as Federer fought back to 5-5.
The world number one's greater experience told in the tie-break as he completed his recovery when a dispirited Ramirez Hidalgo hit long after 2hrs 03mins on court.
"I could have lost today but I got through and I'm happy about that," said Federer who next meets Frenchman Gael Monfils.
"I played well in the first set but he came back well."
Meanwhile, Russia's Marat Safin suffered a bad-tempered exit as the lid blew spectacularly once again on his famously explosive temper.
The former world number one, and double Grand Slam title winner, was knocked out in the second round by Spanish sixth seed David Ferrer 6-2, 6-3 with Safin enduring another on-court meltdown.
The Russian, who has slumped to 93 in the world, became increasingly frustrated with himself and chair umpire Carlos Berado.
In the seventh game of the second set he destroyed his raquet against a courtside chair before screaming at Berado: 'Give me a f****** break!' as he debated another contentious call.
Safin's Russian Davis Cup teammate, Nikolay Davydenko, the fourth seed, moved into the last 16 with a 6-2, 7-6 (7/5) win over Italian qualifier Simone Bolelli.
Davydenko, who captured his second Masters title in Miami last month, showed no ill-effects of the leg injury which forced him to retire from the Estoril final.
"My leg is fine. I checked with the doctor and he found nothing wrong. I practised twice on Tuesday and had physio and it is OK," said Davydenko.
Later Wednesday, triple champion Rafael Nadal, the second seed, faces Croatia's Mario Ancic in what will be the Spaniard's claycourt bow in 2008 as he begins his build-up to what he hopes will be a fourth successive French Open title.
Nadal boasts a formidable record on the surface winning 107 of 110 matches on clay in the last three years, a sequence which has also yielded 17 of his 23 career titles.
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