The match had it all—second serve aces, multi-stroke rallies, skillful net play, light-as-a-feather drop volleys, two of the most beautiful one-handed backhands in the game, and even a Sampras-like overhead smash.
Nevertheless, the most telling moment of the duel came at two-all in the third set, when Tommy Haas, after losing the first two sets to the Swiss man in what can only be described as an impeccable display of grass-court tennis, tossed a tantalizing backhand lob, and as Federer went to take the short ball, tried to distract his opponent at the net by flailing his arms wildly.
Roger complied and tossed his return wide, breaking into a half grin as the German smiled in mock smugness; it was one of only 11 points Federer would concede on his serve for the duration of the match.
The Swiss went on to win the game, but that antic by Haas was emblematic of what most players face when they have the misfortune of catching the maestro at his clinical best: sheer helplessness at fending off a talent so supreme. Surely, the racket alone isn’t enough to beat Roger at his trade?
Andy Roddick put it best, as he so often does: “Maybe I’ll just punch him or something,” he said after one of his routine losses to the Swiss man on the Center Court. Hopefully for Roddick, he has a better game plan for Sunday.
Tommy Haas did everything right today. He showed excellent reflexes, read Federer’s game throughout the match, did not shy away from the net, and ripped winners with his beautiful one-handed backhand, “the best in the game” as Federer himself called it in the pre-match interview.
Above all, he kept his hotheaded alter ego at bay. Finding himself down 0-30 twice in the opening set, Haas answered by mixing serve and volley, ending rallies with some risky offense, and coming in behind big second serves.
The German veteran got 50 percent of his first serves in to Federer’s astounding 74 percent. But the difference didn’t matter as much since Haas could knock off aces and unreturnable serves on his second serve as well as his first.
That is a tall order against anyone, but monumental against a man that made breaking serve look easy against a player that hadn’t dropped a service game in the entire grass-court season, just two days ago.
Haas anticipated and innovated shots on the fly, but Federer continued to outwit him with his fantastic mobility and explosive shot-making, mustering high backhand volleys and running passes, and effectively blocking the German’s big forehands.
Roger didn’t necessarily do everything better, he just did them better on the big points. These came, most importantly, in the first-set tiebreak, where Haas committed a string of unforced errors following a backhand service winner from Federer.
That it was a great serving day for both players was evident from the fact that the first breakpoint of the match didn’t come until the 10th game of the second set. When everything suggested that another tiebreak was in the offing, Haas sent a forehand long at 30-40.
That would be the first game either player would lose on his serve, and Federer capitalized on the break, going up two sets to love.
Even after losing two very tight sets, Haas didn’t seem to slow down, mixing his serve-volleying with powerful groundstrokes, going for broke on every rally, and forcing Federer to be reactive and play an extra shot or two before winning routine points.
Haas’ variety of shot making would have seemed incredible were it not matched on the other side with equal elegance.
The veteran’s effortless beauty in a game that has recently been dominated by power baseliners and high-impact racket technology could be extolled if only his opponent today hadn’t made a career of elegance on a tennis court. But today, we had the symmetry we were missing all these years.
While Haas managed to maintain his service games, volleying routinely on his second serves, even conjuring up a service game with three aces in the first set, he could not so much as make a dent in the Swiss man’s serves. Federer lost just 2 points on his service games in the third set, and did not once face a break point in the entire match.
In addition to the indomitable player across from him, Haas was also battling Lady Luck, as he has throughout his career. At a crucial point at 3-4 and 15-30 down in the third set, his ball clipped the net cord and decided to drop to the other side, wide.
Even under pressure, Tommy hit a rocket second serve that Federer could only toss into the stands. A couple more big service winners and powerful groundstrokes got him through two more breakpoints in the game.
Haas eventually relented following a double fault and a weak backhand that sailed into the net, but not before proving that he had fought off the demons that so often torment him in big matches.
Haas said at the start of the match that he needed to “play the big points better,” and boy, did he deliver! The ones he lost were not so much owing to lack of nerve as they were due to peerless brilliance from the other side.
Four impeccable serves were all Federer needed in the final game to close out the match, the last one punctuated with an overhead smash, reminiscent of the great Pete Sampras in his glory days.
Perhaps, a subtle reminder that the Swiss man intends to surpass the American legend’s all-time record on Sunday?