Claudia launched her Round Table discussion of the best men's matches of 2009 in her recent article, Claudia’s Round Table, Part 1.
One contender in the debate is Roger Federer's fourth round meeting with Tommy Haas at the French Open.
Presented here is an in-depth analysis of that match, built upon Claudia’s criteria.
Give your views, read the arguments for the other contenders, outlined in Part 2, and then vote for the Top Match in Part 3, to be presented Christmas week.
The history and context
The writing was on the wall for Roger Federer as he worked his way, with some effort, through the French Open draw.
He had what seemed his best chance to win this most coveted of titles for the first time, and complete his career Grand Slam. The most threatening name in his side of the draw, Novak Djokovic, had disappeared. His nemesis at the very top of the draw, Rafael Nadal, had fallen. His other bete noir, Andy Murray, was not at home on the loose, slow surface of the French clay.
Federer carried not only the weight of expectation as the new favourite to win the tournament but the prospect, at long last, of equalling Pete Sampras’s Slam record.
But Federer had already had to work hard to hold onto his dream. Jose Acasuso came close to breaking through his defences in the second round, and Paul-Henri Mathieu took a set off him in the third.
Meanwhile, Tommy Haas had not made easy progress either. He’d been pushed to five sets in Round 2 and four sets in Round 3.
But the passion and commitment of Haas was not to be underestimated. He was having a good year after a career plagued by injury, surgery, and family tragedy.
At 31, he was one of the oldest men in the main draw, but his rise up the rankings was the envy of many a younger competitor: 50 places since the beginning of 2009. He looked fitter, happier and more enthused by his tennis than ever, and clearly thought he had the beating of his long-term friend and adversary.
The Drama: Rivalry, Circumstance, Suspense
The Haas and Federer rivalry went back to 2000 but, going into this match, Federer had an eight matches to two advantage.
In this vital match, though, Haas was almost Federer's undoing. They stood toe to toe in fitness, serving, and firing off blistering ground strokes. Haas may have lost concentration in the fourth set, making a strew of errors on his ground stokes, but that was hardly surprising after coming within a gnat’s whisker of winning the third, and what would have been the decisive, set.
And the events of that central set, and the two that preceded it, provided the central drama of the match.
Federer reached the first set tie break without losing a single point on his serve. But then, unexpectedly, he lost the first point, and a succession of forehand errors took him 5-2 down. Haas served his best to hold, and defied the odds by taking the set.
The second set began with Federer again dominating. He won his service game without losing a point and promptly broke the Haas serve. Then, in what looked like a loss of concentration, errors come thick and fast from Federer’s racket, Haas broke back to 4-4, and went on to hold his serve easily.
At 5-6, Federer went 0-30 down, then 30-40 down, then advantage down, and a forehand error handed Haas another set.
The pivotal third set also began tightly. Federer was almost broken at 3-4, but went for a big forehand, served an ace, hit off some powerful drives, and roared like a lion as he won each point. He’d come perilously close to being broken and had shown little chance of breaking Haas back. The match was, essentially, one point from being lost.
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 had the chance to serve for the set. Suddenly he strung together first serves and precision volleys to win it 6-4.
The fourth set saw the Federer charge continue. While he hit the lines, Haas missed them. Federer seemed to feed off Haas’ mistakes, and broke the German a second time with the most outrageous and audacious drop shot—on a return of serve, no less.
The fifth set opened with a clean service game from Haas that confirmed he was not about to throw in the towel.
Games continued with serve but Federer seemed tense while Haas recovered his accurate and liberated tennis.
However at 2-2, with Federer winning the second of two break point, confidence seemed to flood his veins, and he held the break with a three-ace service game.
Suddenly the Federer game was in full flow. He struck one perfectly timed drive after another to take a further game to love. But both players were striking the heart of the racket, punishing any mediocrity in the other. Haas earned a break chance, but Federer eventually won a match point, and took the win at 6-2.
Shot-Making: Energy, Variety, Strength and Movement, Strategy, Sinners, Elegance, Virtuosity
Federer and Haas may be rivals, but they are good friends, too. They chat in German, share similar good looks and proportions, and are both elegant and attacking players. Federer, for example, reinforcing the tactics that had won him Madrid and would help him take Wimbledon, approached the net 38 times, and Haas did so 24 times.
They are also amongst the few to adhere to the single-handed backhand. It is the similarity in their style, their classy shot-making, their speed, all-court play, and tactical intelligence that make their matches a dream encounter for tennis purists.
But the statistical quality of this match should not get lost in its aesthetics or its high drama. For example, the percentage of first serves by both men was in the mid-60s, and there were just four double faults in the entire match—only one from Federer. The speed and accuracy of those serves was also excellent: up to 130mph for Federer, including 16 aces, and 125mph for Haas, with 11 aces.
One more telling benchmark: Federer made twice as many outright winners—60—as unforced errors.
And what of that fourth set where Haas acquired an ignominious zero? Apart from the mental reserves Haas had to find after so nearly winning in straight sets, Federer upped the stakes to such an extent that Haas, despite a first serve percentage of 73 percent, was forced into eight errors. Federer’s first serve soared to 86 percent, with eight outright winners and no unforced errors at all.
The 6-2 scoreline of the final set also belied a high quality conclusion. The stats show very little margin between them: one double fault (Federer’s), high serve quality, fewer unforced errors than could be counted on one hand, and 19 outright winners (split between them 10/9).
It took a superhuman effort—and the sort of tennis that went on to win him the title—for Federer to haul himself back into this match and snatch victory. And his celebration—a roaring, fist-pumping, leaping smash of Haas' last wayward ball—confirmed that this was a crucial landmark on the road to that illusive record.