Did it begin at Roland Garros, when he won three matches on clay, then came within points of beating Roger Federer? Did it begin at Halle, when he won his first title in more than two years, beating No. 4 Novak Djokovic in the process?
Or did it start before any of those things, through an off-court decision no one took note of, because the attention of tennis observers was firmly elsewhere?
Wherever it started, Tommy Haas’ comeback is well-underway, and has brought him to the final four on Centre Court of Wimbledon. He won’t want this journey to end here, but there is no taller task in tennis than what he faces next: beating Federer on grass, the surface where he is seeking his sixth major.
Can it be done? Well, there are a few things Haas’ must do to keep his dream alive.
The 31-year-old German veteran is in his first Wimbledon semifinal. In the late ‘90s he was a prodigy with a diverse set of shots—not necessarily anointed a future Grand Slam champion, but one who gave the German populace reason to hope.
By 2002 he was No. 2 in the world, seemingly just a breakthrough away from the game’s summit, and one of the most consistent performers year-round.
Then he severely injured his shoulder and everything changed. Since 2004 Haas has been in limbo, as one who can’t be counted on to succeed week after week, but one few want to face on a big stage.
Now at an age when many pros have started making retirement plans, Haas is playing with abandon—charging the net, ripping backhands up the line, and braving multiple double faults by refusing to take much off his second serve.
These are encouraging signs, and he’s going to need psychological reinforcement for Friday’s semi.
Will Win If
Haas is one of the few players on tour capable of striking a one-handed backhand better than Federer—though even that depends on the kind of day the Swiss is having.
Provided the Swiss doesn’t have one of those days—you know, those days—Haas can keep himself in the match through backhand exchanges, and by taking the occasional one-hander up-the-line.
Furthermore, he must continue attacking the net, and going for his second serve. He did this with Djokovic in the quarterfinals and, like there, it opens the door for more unforced errors and the chance of seeing passing shots sail by.
These are the chances he has to take, though, because he cannot beat Federer from the backcourt, nor can he cede the net to the man from Basel.
A sign of hope: Haas’ average first serve against Djokovic was 119 mph, and his average second was 109. Those are Sampras-like numbers, but they may be the bare minimum needed to succeed against Federer, who beat the serve du jour, Ivo Karlovic, in straight sets in the quarters.
Another sign: Before his shoulder injury, Haas beat Federer twice, and tends to regard the Swiss with less intimidation than those who know him as the No. 1 and the Grand Slam King.
Haas expressed this after pushing Federer to five sets in the 2006 Australian Open, where he used a colorful phrase to suggest that former No. 1, and current color commentator Jim Courier was too awed by the Swiss’ achievements.
We may not like the words he used, but at least we know he hasn’t lost the match before he steps onto the court.
Will Lose If
Haas should most definitely not play to Federer’s forehand, especially forehand-to-forehand exchanges.
Haas’ dominant wing is no weakness, and neither is Federer’s backhand, but the German needs to attack the most dominant groundstroke in tennis about as much as Andy Roddick needs to serve underhanded.
Furthermore, as we saw in Paris, Haas is capable of putting Federer on the defensive. But if Federer gets out of his corner, he will run away with the match. If Haas has victory in his sights, he must seal the deal, lest his chances slip away for good.
What will Haas take away from their Paris encounter, when he was only a set from ending Federer’s Roland Garros dream, yet lost the last two sets 6-0, 6-2?
For that matter, what does Federer take from it? The feeling that Haas, even on a good day, can’t beat him, or the sense that this is one of the few guys who can?
Shots to Look For
Look for Haas to stand well back on Federer’s service games. While very capable of taking the ball early on groundstrokes, the German prefers to play safe on returns.
This may help him get more serves back, but will also require him to play a lot of defense after that—especially passing shots.
The problem is that, whether this match is over in straight sets or five sets, its easier to picture Federer as the winner. It may be that the Swiss comes out seeing the ball too well and Haas has no chance. But if it's Haas who gets into a groove early, he will have the opportunity here.
In that case, it’s just a matter of whether he can keep Federer on the canvas.