It was a shocker. Then again, on a few levels, it wasn’t.
After 10 weeks off the court, Roger Federer was beaten at the Mercedes Open in Stuttgart, Germany by longtime friend Tommy Haas 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4 in his first match back. It was his first on the grass courts, as well.
The author of the upset was as shocked as anyone, although perhaps less surprised than his friend Federer.
“Mainly pretty speechless of course. Playing Roger is always very special, especially on grass, especially here in Germany. Lot of emotions, never easy to play a close friend either. I think you could see both of our nerves playing a bit of a role,” Haas said during an on-court interview after the win.
It was the second straight year Federer had match point in Stuttgart, only to lose. The same thing happened in 2016 against Alexander Zverev.
“I thought it was a typical grass-court match today. Rallies weren’t very long and it was decided on a serve there or a return here. If you don’t take your chances like I didn’t, leading a set and a break, you really only have yourself to blame at the end. You have to acknowledge the fact that he was a bit better. It’s quite frustrating, but that’s the way it goes sometimes,” Federer told the media in Stuttgart. “I definitely was not as sharp as I was hoping to be in maybe the big moments, or the moment when I had the lead and where I feel I should have been cruising from that moment on.”
Memories of Phau
At No. 302, Haas is the lowest-ranked player to beat Federer since another German, Bjorn Phau, defeated him at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. all the way back in 1999. Phau was then ranked No. 407.
Haas said there are a lot of factors that come into play in a match like this one that “only the insiders really know.”
“He hasn’t played a match in 10 weeks, and the first match is always the toughest. Deep within myself I thought I had a small chance. Normally I (wouldn’t) kind of really believe it,” Haas said. “To be honest, just coming out here playing great tennis, playing in front of my daughter. That’s really what it’s all about right now.”
Haas is playing Stuttgart for the last time. In on a wild card, he had already impressed in a first-round, three-set win over 26-year-old Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert.
Good start goes bad for Federer
The draw was a rough one for both. But Federer began as if he had been on the match court just last week. He cruised through the first set and broke Haas in the third game of the second set.
Through his career, Federer has always played these types of occasions like a Stradivarius.
He always knows exactly what city he’s in, and who he’s playing.
When he can, he’ll give it just enough against an inferior opponent to get the win. At the same time, he’ll always give the home crowd something to cheer about.
Federer didn’t have that kind of margin in this one.
Whether he took his foot off the gas after such a solid start is hard to know. Certainly he wouldn’t do it on purpose. But Haas put together a brilliant second set. He made very few errors, and he kept Federer pinned back in the court for a large part of it.
As well, Haas was unusually calm, cool and collected. Always a hothead, perhaps the presence of daughter Valentina made him resist the temptation to amp up the drama.
Still, Federer had a match point in the second-set tiebreak. He saved three set points against his serve – then coughed up his first double fault of the match on the fourth.
Weird things happening
Federer caught his toss before that second serve. That’s not something that happens every day. He also was successful on three Hawkeye challenges – also not an everyday occurrence.
After Haas broke to lead 3-2 in the third set, Federer looked rather annoyed. In the next game, after Haas went up 40-0, he turned on the machine a little bit and earned four break points. Haas saved all of them.
By 3-5, serving to stay in the match, Federer sort of threw the kitchen sink out onto the stadium court to see how it would work out. He serve-volleyed on a second serve on the first point. He serve-volleyed again at 15-all, on the first serve, but was easily passed by Haas’s cross-court forehand winner.
The final point of the match was a perfect representation of the way Federer played this first grass-court effort of 2017.
Fielding a short ball on the backhand – a mishit from Haas – the right play call would have been to hit a short little slice crosscourt. Haas would have been nowhere near it.
Instead, Federer wound up and tried to hit a huge topspin backhand crosscourt for a winner. He missed by quite a bit, and the match went to Haas.
Grass tactics not quite on point
The takeaway from this first match is that the ultra-aggressive style Federer returned to the Tour with in January in Australia might not be quite as effective on the grass.
He came back from a six-month layoff hitting his topspin backhand as well as he ever has – and as often as he has, arguably, in his entire career.
But his slice remains a great shot when he uses it on offense. It’s particularly great on the grass, where it stays low, skids, and forces his opponent to hit up.
Until the third set Wednesday, the Swiss star wasn’t using it nearly as often as he probably should have. He might have been out of practice. Add in the first-match nerves Haas referenced, and Federer’s thinking might not have been as clear as it could have been.
Unfortunately, he won’t get any more practice this week in Stuttgart. Federer will have to wait until next week in Halle, Germany to get more match play. By that time, he’ll have huddled with his coaches and probably figured all that out.
At 39, Haas is the oldest ATP Tour quarter-finalist since Jimmy Connors accomplished that feat back in 1995. As it happens, it also happened in Germany, and on grass – in Halle. Connors was 42.
(Screenshots from TennisTV.com)