MASON, Ohio (AP)
-- A gust of wind snatched the tennis ball that Roger Federer had swatted toward the upper deck and blew it right over the top row of seats, making the souvenir vanish from sight.
As he watched the yellow dot sail away, the world's top-ranked player was thankful he didn't get blown away, too.
Federer struggled in blustery conditions Thursday against a player he has dominated throughout his career. A 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Spain's David Ferrer put him in the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters and left him relieved he was still around.
"This win today was perfect," he said. "It gives me another opportunity to play another match. I'm further into the tournament, which normally makes me play better."
Second-ranked Andy Murray watched Federer struggle with the wind and took the court with an idea of what to expect. He beat Radek Stepanek 6-4, 6-1 in the next match at the $3 million event, where the top players managed to move on.
"It's tough conditions, very windy," said Murray, who had only 14 unforced errors and was broken only once. "I saw a little bit of Federer's match before I was going on. You know you can't play to the lines. You're going to mis-hit some shots. It's just important not to get too frustrated."
Third-ranked Rafael Nadal was much sharper in his second match of the tournament, a 7-5, 6-2 victory over France's Paul-Henri Mathieu. No. 4 Novak Djokovic beat Jeremy Chardy of France 7-5, 6-3 to reach the quarterfinals.
Following his postmatch interview on the court, Federer swatted some souvenir balls into the stands -- well, all but that last one that cleared the seats and bounced down the concourse, demonstrating what players were up against. Every mistake was magnified by mph.
"Just play smart," Federer said. "If you play dumb in the wind, that can backfire big-time."
Federer took time off after his Wimbledon victory -- his record 15th Grand Slam title -- for the birth of his twin daughters. His difficulties on Thursday had little to do with the layoff and everything to do with the wind, which played havoc with shots.
Federer usually likes to play in the wind but needed a set to get his bearings against Ferrer, who is 0-9 career against the Swiss star and has won only two sets in those matches.
Federer made 16 unforced errors in the opening set, unable to get the ball to land where he wanted. The swirling wind tousled players' hair, rippled their shirts and made the turned-off circular fans behind the players' chairs whirl as if they were drawing electricity.
The 27-year-old Spaniard seemed to draw energy off Federer's difficulties. When Ferrer broke to go up 3-2 in the third set, he had his chance.
Immediately, he blew it.
Federer broke right back to tie it at 3. Upset over the wasted opportunity to take control, Ferrer angrily swatted a ball into the stands and then dropped his racket. He sensed he might not get another opening.
Federer broke him to go up 5-4 with a move that showed a feel for the wind. He chipped a backhand that drew Ferrer to the net and then deftly lobbed a backhand over his head -- the wind-pushed ball landed perfectly inside the baseline.
"I think at the beginning, maybe my footwork was just a touch off," Federer said. "After that, I think I got it together and started to play better and better. In the end, when it goes your way, all of a sudden you can actually use the wind to your advantage in a big way. That's what I hoped to do the whole match today, but it's not so easy sometimes."
He'll face Lleyton Hewitt, who beat Sam Querrey 6-1, 2-6, 6-3 on Thursday.
"He's the benchmark," Hewitt said. "He's obviously the in-form player at the moment and the guy to beat on any surface, especially after winning the two last big majors. We have had so many big matches over the years in a lot of situations. It's always a privilege to play Roger."
Nadal took two months off -- missing Wimbledon -- to let the tendinitis in both knees subside. He looked rusty last week in Montreal and struggled in his opening match on Wednesday.
Nadal was back on his game against Mathieu, who fell to 0-9 career against the 23-year-old Spaniard. Nadal repeatedly won points with crisp shots that hugged the lines and left no room for return.
"Very pleased with my performance," he said. "I think I played much better than yesterday."