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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Semi-Final Preview: Federer v Haas

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With tennis seemingly a younger man's (or woman's) game dominated by early twentysomethings, it is refreshing to see that two of the men’s semi-finalists are past their mid-twenties and one even in his early thirties.

Not only do Roger Federer and Tommy Haas have a combined age of 59, they can also play a brand of tennis more reminiscent of the good old days – serve and volley, chip and charge, attacking the net. The grass on Centre Court is bald behind the baseline ("like playing on clay", grinned women’s semi-finalist Dinara Safina) and pristine nearer the net – a reflection of how modern players prefer to hang back, wait for mistakes and paint the corners.

Both Federer and Haas, however, are experts at keeping the points short, and high-octane tennis should definitely be the order of the day.

This is the Swiss world No.2's 21st consecutive Grand Slam semi-final – a record that is so amazing it bears repeating until it actually sinks in. Federer has avoided injury, pit-falls, banana skins and temporary blips to make the final four at every major since Wimbledon 2004. Seeing him on the second Friday at SW19 is like the sun rising in the morning – you just know it will happen. For Haas, however, this is an Indian summer of epic proportions.

The photogenic German has been a nearly man throughout the decade. He has spent year on year in and around the top 10, rising as high as No.2 in the world in 2002 after making the semi-final of the Australian Open then having a good run on clay where he reached the quarters in Monte Carlo, the final in Rome and the second week of the French.

But that was as good as it got. This is Haas’ fourth Grand Slam semi-final, but he lost the previous three (all in Melbourne) and he has only one win to his name in ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments, at Stuttgart in 2001.

He suffered a shoulder injury in 2007 and missed time at both the start and the end of the 2008 season as the niggles persisted. This year, however, he has come back fitter and more determined than ever. Rafael Nadal halted his progress at the Australian Open and Federer at the French in a match where Haas led two sets to love and had a break point at 3-4, 30-40 on the Swiss' serve.

Had he taken that, then who knows what would have happened in a tournament that had seen Nadal lose to Robin Soderling the day before.

The 31-year-old German moved seamlessly on to grass, taking advantage of Federer’s absence to win the indoor tournament in Halle, defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Philipp Kohlschreiber on the way before besting Novak Djokovic in the final – the man whom he defeated here on Wednesday to cruise into the semis.

"I’m glad it's Haas and not Djokovic – he’s from my generation!" said Federer of his final four opponent. "It's no surprise to see him here. He played great in Paris and he will be even tougher here as he prefers grass and hard courts to clay. I’ve trained with him a lot recently and we often go out to get something to eat together. It's great when someone comes back from injury and gets the results."

Will Haas try serve and volley to defeat his sparring partner and dinner companion? "When you get older like me, you try to get free points as much as you can,” grinned the German in a rare moment of self-deprecation. "“It's been working so far. My first serve percentage has been pretty good lately and I feel like at the net, I can do some good stuff. So far so good."

"I always felt that on the grass maybe something is still there for me left," he continued. "It started in Halle – winning a title there on home turf was huge. And I always felt like deep down Wimbledon will maybe still have something left for me. It better come up soon, because I'm not getting any younger!"

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