LONDON, England, June 29- Six-time champion Roger Federer survived a huge scare to reach the Wimbledon last 16 on Friday while defending champion Novak Djokovic avoided another Czech Republic Centre Court ambush.
Federer came within 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.”
Friday’s thrilling third round tie was played out under the Centre Court roof which had also been closed for the final set of Nadal’s stunning second round exit to Czech world 100 Lukas Rosol 24 hours earlier.
“I was cramping in the final set and it was difficult to get support to hit the ball,” said Benneteau.
Djokovic, meanwhile, reached the last 16 with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 win over veteran Czech Radek Stepanek.
Top seed Djokovic overcame dropping his first set of the tournament to see off the 33-year-old.
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.
Djokovic found wily Stepanek, a quarter-finalist in 2006, hard to read in the first set as the Czech kept the champion pinned back by serving and volleying, almost an extinct technique on the slowing All England Club lawns.
But he won 18 of the next 24 games to storm to victory, taking another step closer to a sixth career Grand Slam title.
“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.
The Serb insisted Nadal’s fate, which was also played out under the Centre Court roof, had not entered his thoughts.
“I was focused on my own game. I knew Radek is a tricky opponent and very experienced,” he said.
“He’s one of the few players who comes to the net after every first serve. He has the variety of game to hurt anyone.”
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 2001, 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.