- 01 Jun 2020
What happened exactly on that day?
On this day, June 1, 2009, Roger Federer came from two sets and break point down to edge out Tommy Haas in the fourth round of the French Open (6-7, 5-7, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2) and keep his title hopes alive. The Swiss turned things around with a memorable forehand winner on the line. It was a significant win for Federer, as his nemesis Rafael Nadal, who had defeated him the four previous years in Roland-Garros, had surprisingly been defeated the day before by Robin Soderling. Nadal’s loss created the perfect opportunity for Federer to eventually claim the Roland-Garros crown – the only one he was still chasing– but it also put incredible pressure on his shoulders; the entire world was now watching him, expecting him to complete the career Grand Slam.
Roger Federer, legend that is said to be declining
Roger Federer was 27 years old in May 2009 and going through a tough time in his career. He had dominated the game between 2004 and 2007, winning almost everything but the French Open. Nadal was the main reason Federer hadn’t won it yet; he lost against him in the final in 2006, 2007 and again in 2008, a challenging year for the Swiss. First, a young Novak Djokovic defeated him in the Australian Open semi-final (7-5, 6-3 7-6), but the worst was yet to come. Nadal, after destroying him in a painful Roland-Garros final (6-1, 6-3, 6-0), had managed to defeat him in his own garden at Wimbledon, after a five-set thriller (6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7). When the Spaniard went as far as knocking him off the world No 1 spot he had held for 237 consecutive weeks, Federer probably thought he had reached rock bottom. If this was the case, then he was wrong. Rock bottom was only reached at the 2009 Australian Open, when Federer lost again to his nemesis in the final, in five sets (7-5, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-2), and he could not hold back his tears during the trophy ceremony.
At this stage in 2009, Roger had not only become Nadal’s challenger, but he had also been defeated by Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. For the first time since 2000, Federer had not claimed a single title in the first four months of the year. Journalists had started to talk about decline before the Swiss claimed the title in Madrid, beating Nadal on clay only for the second time, reminding them that the legend was still alive and that he had not given up on his quest for Roland-Garros.
Tommy Haas, a bold rival
Tommy Haas was born in Germany in 1978, but he was a product of the Nick Bollettieri Academy, in Florida, where he spent his teenage years, developing his aggressive game based on a good serve and a blasting forehand. He achieved his best Grand Slam results at the Australian Open, where he reached the semi-finals three times (in 1999, 2002 and 2007), and obtained a silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics (losing to Yevgeny Kafelnikov). Haas had claimed 11 titles on the tour, none of them on European clay, where his best performance remained reaching the final in Rome, in 2002, where he lost to Andre Agassi. He had reached his best ranking, world No 2, in May 2002, before having to interrupt his career for an entire year; in 2003, his father was in a coma after a car accident and Haas took this time off to look after his family. After his comeback in 2004, he climbed back to the top 20 in less than a year, but he did not manage to enter the top 10 until January 2007 after he reached the Australian Open semi-final. Injured in 2008, he began 2009 as the world No 80 and was No 63 at the start of Roland-Garros.
The story took place at Roland-Garros, Paris. The stadium, located in the west of Paris at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne forest, had been hosting the French Open since 1928. It was the first and now the only Grand Slam to be played on clay, the slowest surface, which made it the hardest tournament to win from a physical perspective. With the prominence of baseliners like Gustavo Kuerten, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and of course later Nadal and his extraordinary topspin, winning Roland-Garros became the biggest challenge for players like Haas or Federer who played an aggressive game and liked attacking the net.
The German had never gone past the fourth round of the French Open before while Federer had finished runner-up three consecutive times, from 2006 to 2008, only to be defeated by the same man, Nadal. It was the only Grand Slam the tournament where the Swiss had not come out on top.
The story of the match between Federer and Haas, played on the 1st June, 2009, had begun the day before, on the 31st May, at the precise moment Robin Soderling defeated the King of clay, Rafael Nadal (6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6). From that very moment, the tournament took a new turn for world No 2 Federer. His nemesis Nadal, the player who had deprived him in three consecutive French finals, was eliminated against all odds by the most unexpected opponent. Years later, reflecting on that day, the Swiss would say that he had left the stadium after Soderling had won the first set, not thinking for a second that the Swede would go on to win the match. Coming back to his hotel, Federer would find out he was wrong; Nadal had been sent home. Federer knew right away that this was his chance to eventually claim the title. Unfortunately for him, so did the entire planet, and this golden opportunity came with a new pressure that fell heavily upon his shoulders.
When Federer and Haas came on court to play their fourth-round match the next day, it was as if a storm had hit the tournament. Nadal was out, it had to be Roger’s year. Everyone was talking about the Spaniard’s loss or speculating about Federer winning Roland-Garros for the first time, but very few paid any attention to Haas. The Parisian crowd was not very familiar with the German, who had never achieved any outstanding results there. Furthermore, he had defeated Federer only twice in 10 encounters, the last time in 2002, when he was in his prime and Roger a newcomer on the tour. Yet he soon proved that he should not have been counted out.
From the first few games, it was obvious that Federer was under high pressure. Feeling now compelled to win the tournament, he struggled with the entire world’s expectations, his own game, and his opponent who did everything to make him miserable. While Federer, very tense, was not able to set up his aggressive strategy without missing too much, Haas was all pumped up and delivered a great performance, serving particularly well. He claimed the first set, 7-6. In the second set, the Swiss still couldn’t loosen up. Despite the public’s support, he seemed to be digging his own grave; shy with his forehand, still missing more than usual. Haas not only took the second set, 7-5, but soon had a break point at 4-3 in the third set. It was almost a match point. The German would admit later: “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think, at that point, ‘Hey, if I win this point I’m going to win this match. I’m going to serve him out.'”
Haas had no idea how right he was; this point would seal the match. Just not in the way he expected.
When Federer missed his first serve, a shiver went through the audience. Was it possible that, just one day after Nadal had been defeated, the new favourite could be eliminated as well, and miss the chance of his life by losing in straight sets? His second serve went to Haas’ backhand and the German replied with a cross-court return, deep enough to start a baseline rally against any player. Except Roger Federer was never “any player.” At this desperate time, Federer delivered the genius shot that makes the difference between a great tennis player and a then 13-time Grand Slam champion. He ran around his backhand and delivered an inside-out forehand which traveled at the speed of light to end on the line before Tommy Haas could even blink. The momentum had changed. The German was stunned by the amazing shot that Federer had pulled out at such an important moment and Federer won the next nine games to take sets three and four 6-4 6-0. Although Haas tried to get himself together at the start of the fifth set, Federer was now too good and sealed the victory, 6-7, 5-7, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2.
Federer would have a hard time but he would eventually triumph at Roland-Garros in 2009, for the first and only time in his career. Seriously challenged in the semi-final by Juan Martin del Potro (3-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-1, 6-4), he would cope with the pressure in the final by defeating the man who had taken Nadal out of his way, Soderling (6-1, 7-6, 6-4). Later, Federer would say of how he felt after Nadal’s loss, “I was mentally drained because I felt like I had to play like four finals at the end of Paris because of the pressure.”
With Nadal missing through injury, Federer would also triumph at Wimbledon a month later, breaking Pete Sampras’ record with a 15th Grand Slam crown, reclaiming the world No 1 spot. The Swiss would reach a last final at Roland-Garros in 2011, where his rival Rafael Nadal would edge him again (7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1). Haas would confirm his great shape by reaching the semi-finals at Wimbledon, where he would lose to Federer again, 7-5, 7-6, 6-3.
After being disturbed by injuries in 2010 and 2011, Haas would come back another time to climb back as far as No 11 in June 2013. His last remarkable results would be claiming the title in Halle in 2012 against Federer (7-6, 6-4), and reaching the quarter-finals at the French Open in 2013 (defeated by Novak Djokovic, 6-3, 7-6, 7-5). He would then appear more scarcely on the tour, struggling with injuries, and busy with his new position as director of the Indian Wells tournament. He would officially retire from professional tennis in 2018.