As Roger Federer stepped onto Philippe Chatrier on the second Monday of the French Open, it must have seemed that he could spy the milk and honey in the far distance.
The most threatening name in his side of the draw, Novak Djokovic, has disappeared. His nemesis at the very top of the draw has fallen. His other bete noir, Andy Murray, is not at home on the loose, slow surface of the French clay.
The Red Sea has rolled back and a narrow path to the French Open trophy lays before him.
On paper, his next obstacle, Tommy Haas, should pose fewer problems than those thrown up by Jose Acasuso and Paul-Henri Mathieu. Both men are ranked well above Haas—a lowly 63.
Haas had not made especially easy progress to this stage, despite meeting only one top-50 player in the form of Jeremy Chardy. And he was pushed to five sets in Round Two and four sets in Round Three.
Today he not only plays the No. 2 seed, but the man with a record second only to Nadal in recent years at Roland Garros.
But the passion and commitment of Tommy Haas should not be underestimated. He has come back from serious injury like a cat with nine lives: both ankles broken and repaired, and a shoulder operated on more than once.
Haas has such an appetite for the game that he continues to aspire to world-beating tennis, despite injury and in the face of advancing years—he's now 31. He is looking fitter and moving better than he has done in years—and he is a former No. 2 himself.
Federer, meanwhile, has had sterner opposition. Jose Acasuso, ranked 45 almost entirely on points from the early-season clay tournaments, came close to breaking through Federer’s defences.
Then Paul-Henri Mathieu, the gifted Frenchman on his home ground, took the first set in a sizzling match of fine shot-making, energetic sprinting and good humour.
Now Federer also carries the weight of expectation as new favourite to win the tournament. So the dies are cast to make this a tense and unpredictable match.
In the first set, Federer reaches the tie break without losing a single point on his serve. His backhand, too, is performing very well—as it has done increasingly over the last few months.
But then, unexpectedly, he loses the first point of the tie break, and a succession of forehand errors takes him 4-2, then 5-2 down. Haas serves at his best to hold and defies logic by taking the first set.
The second set begins with Federer again dominating, and once more winning a serve game without losing a point. He follows up by breaking the Haas serve.
Then, in what looks like a loss of concentration, errors come thick and fast from Federer’s racket. Haas breaks back to 4-4, and goes on to hold his serve easily.
Rarely has the Haas serve performed so well. Perhaps during the last round of surgery he had a bionic shoulder installed.
At five games to six, Federer goes 0-30 down, then is 30-40 down, then advantage down. Yet another forehand error hands a deserving Haas set number two.
The third set continues in the same vein. Federer is almost broken when serving at 3-4, but goes for a big forehand, serves an ace, makes powerful drives, and roars like a lion as each point is won.
The crowd seems to will Haas into making a mistake on his serve, which he does, to deliver Federer a break point.
Then in one of the longest and most dramatic rallies of the match—with lobs, drops, smashes and finally a forehand driven long from Haas—Federer has the chance to serve for the set. Suddenly he strings together first serves and precision volleys to win it 6-4.
The fourth set sees the Federer charge continue as he breaks in the first game. While he hits the lines, Haas misses them, firing volley after volley wide.
Federer’s timing seems to feed off Haas’ mistakes, and he begins to make more winning forehands. Haas is broken a second time by the most outrageous and audacious drop shot from Federer—on a return of serve, no less.
Then, extraordinarily, the live transmission is switched away from the on-court action to the Eurosport studio for an unilluminating interview between Annabel Croft and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Away from the cameras, Federer continues his domination to a 5-0 lead.
Thankfully, the cameras return to the fourth set in time to see Federer serve out to 6-0. And the players enter the deciding set of what has become a dramatic story of near-Biblical proportions.
The fifth set opens—after a tense delay while both men disappear off court—with a decisive clean service game from Haas that confirms he is not about to throw in the towel.
It is followed by Federer’s first double fault of the match, as he goes 0-30 down in his first service game. He recovers to hold.
Games continue with serve but tension seems to have returned to Federer’s serve, while Haas has recovered his accurate and liberated tennis. In Federer’s long career, he has won only four five-set matches. Perhaps this poor record is preying on his mind.
However at 2-2, Federer achieves two break points, and he wins the second. Confidence seems to flood his veins as he holds the break with a three-ace service game.
The camera picks up an intense muttered conversation to himself behind a masking hand as he prepares to receive at 4-2.
Suddenly the Federer game is in full flow. He strikes one perfectly timed drive after another to take another break game to love. He again roars at himself as he strides to his chair.
The crowd is still treated to a phase of magnificent tennis, now with both players striking the heart of the racket and punishing any mediocrity in the other. Haas earns a break chance—yes, Haas is certainly passionate and committed.
But eventually, Federer has the match point, and takes what has been a demanding but rewarding win with a convincing 6-2 set.
To see his celebration—a roaring, fist-pumping, leaping smash of Haas’ last wayward ball—you might think he was enjoying the sugar-high from tasting that milk and honey. Maybe this was, indeed, an important test on the road to the Paris title.
Federer’s feet may be a little damp from his first steps on the not-entirely-dry path through the Red Sea. But Haas’ performance may well have injected that extra self-belief into the Federer head. His heart is certainly up for the fight.