World No. 3 Roger Federer had to use all his guile and experience to battle back from a set down to see off fast-rising Canadian Milos Raonic 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7/4) in the Madrid Open second round on Wednesday.
The Swiss maestro, after an opening-round bye at the Masters Series clay-court event, was playing his first match since the end of March and only just edged out the big-serving 21-year-old, who thumped 21 aces on the Manolo Santana show court.
Rafael Nadal made much smoother progress into the last 16, dispatching former world No. 3 Nikolay Davydenko 6-2, 6-2, before joining widespread criticism of the unfamiliar blue courts, a controversial innovation at this year’s tournament.
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic slammed the organizers after his labored win on Tuesday, saying the surface at the futuristic Magic Box arena was too slippery and complaining the concerns of the players were being ignored.
Officials say the blue courts make it easier for TV viewers to follow the yellow balls, but Nadal called for the traditional red clay to be reinstated next year.
“The court is not one that makes you feel comfortable,” said Nadal, who won back-to-back clay titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, before heading to Madrid.
“The court is difficult, it’s very slippery and it makes supporting movements and getting back to defend very tough,” the world No. 2 told Spanish TV.
Nadal next faces 15th-seeded compatriot Fernando Verdasco for a place in the quarter-finals.
“The only thing we can do now is turn the page and we are not going to get the red courts back tomorrow, so we have to adapt to the blue,” he added.
Federer struggled to make any impression on the Raonic serve in the early stages and was broken himself in the ninth game, before the Canadian served out to take the first set.
The 16-time Grand Slam singles champion leveled the match with an exquisite drop shot, before surviving several scares on his serve in the deciding set and then running away with the tiebreak 7-4 as the young pretender’s nerve failed him.
Federer, chasing a fourth title of the year, sealed victory on his first match point with a ripping forehand return that caught the line and set up a meeting with French 14th seed Richard Gasquet.
The 30-year-old Swiss said it was slippery at the back of the court against world No. 23 Raonic.
“It was pretty much a big struggle for me tonight, but sometimes these kinds of wins can create good things,” Federer said.
Raonic said he needed to improve his game against the better players.
“I felt I played really well the whole time and I was dictating the match, especially on my serve,” the Canadian said. “It just came down to one or two points, but if I want to be in this position against Federer, Nadal, Djokovic ... I’m going to have to improve my returns. It’s hard not to be disappointed, but at the end of the day it’s motivating and I know I can get better. With experience, time and a few lucky breaks it will go my way.”
Elsewhere, eighth seed John Isner of the US lost 7-6 (7/4), 7-6 (7/3) to fellow giant Marin Cilic of Croatia.
The unseeded Cilic, who is 1.98m tall compared to Isner’s 2.06m, produced the shots when it counted in the tiebreaks to set up a meeting with former US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro.
Isner refused to blame his defeat on the court, saying he was beaten by the superior player.