One of my favorite things in tennis is the Australian Open men’s semifinals. For some reason, special things tend to happen inside Rod Laver Arena on those two January nights. It’s like the Tennis Gods decide to get the year going with something out of the ordinary. And the best part is that the Gods love some variety: sure, they have tossed in more than a few dramatic five-setters (Baghdatis coming back from two sets down against Nalbandián in 2006, Murray taking Djokovic to the limit last year), spectacular breakout performances (Jo-Willy Tsonga’s demolition of Rafael Nadal in 2008), big names dueling it out in instant classics (Safin edging Federer in five sets in 2005, Safin surviving Agassi’s comeback the year before) and of course, the greatest tennis match I’ve ever seen (Hint: it involved two Spaniards, and it happened 3 years ago).
As we know, the tennis world tends to focus on the epic struggles when it’s time to reminisce about great matches, forgetting all about the truly spectacular individual performances, which invariably take place in matches that aren’t close. Of course, not all lopsided affairs are worth remembering. But those that are, they achieve something unique: they turn tennis into something different than a mere sport or competition: they turn it into a brutal variation of performance art. Suspense is replaced by awe, and we are left to contemplate a human being execute the game at a level that can only be found in dreams.
What Fernando González did in his semifinal against Tommy Haas in 2007 was more than that, though. It was as if the Tennis Gods decided to take over the body of the volatile Chilean and have some fun of their own.
Or at least that’s how I remember it to be.
I also recall being annoyed at how little attention this incredible performance got, because it came after Federer’s trashing of Roddick the night before. I watched that match – the beatdown was more due to Roddick playing into Federer’s hands than anything else. Naturally, Federer-Roddick was the marquee match-up, since González-Haas didn’t have nearly the same star power. Both the Chilean and the German were trying to get to their first ever Slam final, and Gonzo was playing in his first ever semifinal. Haas was playing in just his third (his two prior ones had also been at the Australian Open).
I remember Serena Williams being star-struck at González’ performance. She kept going on and on about the craziest stat that came out of the match: González hit 42 winners and committed just three unforced errors.
Forty-two winners. Just three unforced errors.
In a Grand Slam semifinal.
Against a former World No. 2 (then ranked No. 12) who had just beaten two top 10 players – then-ranked No. 3 Davydenko and No. 8 Nalbandián. There wasn’t even a familiarity between González and Haas that would suggest such a result like there was for Federer-Roddick; this was just the second time the Chilean and the German played against each other.
Moreover, if you remember how Fernando González played the game of tennis (all-out aggression on his forehand), you’re not really surprised by the 42 winners. The shock comes with the three unforced errors over three sets of tennis.
Sadly, this match is not available on YouTube, but you can find it in the Australian Open Vault, a most wonderful resource from what has become the most fan-friendly Slam. Why don’t more tournaments do this? It can’t possibly make much of a dent in their spectacular profits, and fans everywhere can benefit.
As in the 1990 French Open Final and the Best Match of 2012 posts, I’ll be including links to my favorite moments of the match, so whenever you see a link, do click on it! The Australian Open Vault has the same system as YouTube, where you can link to a specific point of a video. So trust me when I tell you that when you click on any of the links below, a new tab or window will pop up and you’ll see exactly what I’m writing about. Isn’t technology neat?
Now that the table is set, let’s go back in time and watch Fernando González play tennis better than he ever dreamed he could. Because, you know, he had a Tennis God inside him.
- We begin. I miss the green Australian Open court. If memory serves me right, this was the last year of the always controversial Rebound Ace, which was replaced by a blue variant to the DecoTurf used at the US Open for the 2008 edition of the tournament. If I’m a junior out there, you bet I’m focusing on being great on hard courts; two of the four Slams (plus six of the nine Masters 1000s and eight of the 11 ATP 500s) are on hard. Two of the four Slams use practically the same exact surface! This has more to do with economics than anything else – but that’s a story for another day. Still, I’d settle for having the Australian Open be green again. The US Open already had dibs on blue, and half the tournaments around the world use that same color. Maybe Melbourne can rock a two-tone green?
- The first monster forehand of the match arrives in the second point. It’s a wonderful passing shot. Notice how well González is moving – this was a direct consequence of the Larry Stenfanki “Get fit so you can run faster” philosophy. In González’ case, it was was a good choice; Feña was never chunky, but his defense did let him down earlier in his career.
Haas makes two straight errors after this, and Gonzo has broken at love to start the match. Not the greatest start in the world for Haas. Speaking of him, I had forgotten that he was wearing this weird “Limited Sports” kit at the time. Can’t say I’m a huge fan:
Then again, it is better than wearing Nike clothes without being sponsored by them and switching mid-match to an Asics shirt.
Partially related: here is what Larry Stefanki looked like six years ago:
Am I the only one who thinks Larry has a secret Eagles tribute band?
- This is Gonzo Tennis 101: Big serve, bigger forehand. Stay for the slo-mo replay – it’s nuts to see how much racquet-head speed he puts on that forehand. It’s devastating. You really feel like the poor yellow ball had wronged Gonzo terribly in the past, given how much violence is summoned for each swing.
González holds at love for 3-0 after a couple of Haas errors. The German is rattled, and looks more tense than a guy waiting to be called in for a prostate exam.
- This is where you knew Haas was in trouble, and González was possessed: the Florida resident dictates for much of the point with his cross-court backhand, which is the match-up he wants to exploit, given that everybody knows Gonzo’s one-hander is shaky, and Haas’ is solid as a rock (also, one of the prettiest one-handers in recent times). Gonzo shows his newfound patience, also guided by the Larry Stefanki trademark “Slice the heck out of that backhand” tactical scheme. He hangs around in the point, seemingly happy to hit slice backhand after backhand. Still, Haas is in control of the point, until the German hits a slightly shorter backhand, and Gonzo simply obliterates it with a backhand down the line winner of his own. A thunderous shot, off of Gonzo’s weaker side.
Haas has to be wondering what in the world he is going to do if the backhand exchanges end like that. He probably wonders why he hit a double fault to go down 0-40 at 0-2, too. Tommy’s yet to win a point in this match.
- Haas does win a point, then another, and saves the third break point with this gorgeous backhand down the line, after a fascinating rally in which Gonzo was blasting his inside-out forehand (his best shot) against Haas’ cross-court backhand (Haas’ best shot). They trade forehand blows for a bit, and then Haas unleashes this beauty. He’s settling into the match, finally, and holds for 1-2 after a bit.
Tactically, what Haas needs to do is relatively straightforward: attack Gonzo’s backhand (something he’s not really doing – Haas seems content to just rally to that wing, unable to do much with Gonzo’s endless slices), and look for opportunities to go down the line with his backhand or inside-in with his forehand to punish González tendency to camp out on the ad court, waiting to unload on his monster inside-out bomber. However, it’s difficult to do much of anything successfully against González at the moment.
- Here’s another pretty backhand down the line winner by Haas, and of the passing shot variety at that. More surprisingly, Haas is up 0-30 on González’ serve. The Bomber from La Reina then sandwiches a good volley between two service winners, and then decides to serve and volley. Haas has none of it, and drops a return to his feet. Gonzo then wrong-foots Haas with an inside-out backhand (!) winner – because, why would anybody cover that shot? – and then –
- This point happens. And González holds for 3-1.
- You’ll struggle to find two forehands hit harder than these two. It almost feels like Haas is getting shot.
In related news, Haas finds himself in a 15-40 hole after a backhand shank. And then …
- This happens to Haas’ serve. Mind, you, that was a backhand return. Tommy Haas is now down two breaks, 1-4.
What’s remarkable is that so far in the match, González has not made any mistakes. He’s not giving Haas anything. The German has to reach a very high level just to have a chance to win points. Just a chance.
- This first point of González’ serve at 4-1 illustrates Haas’ plight. He hits a very good crosscourt forehand, making González hit on the run, only to see an even better forehand, with a more acute angle, go by him. Mind you, that wasn’t about power at all – it was about spin and placement.
A few seconds later, the announcers remark what I had mentioned just a few lines above: González has yet to hit an unforced error. Five games of tennis have already been played. As if to strengthen the point, González hits two straight aces, and then mercilessly pummels this forehand. It’s 5-1 now.
Zero unforced errors. In six games of high level tennis.
- González starts Haas’ service game at 5-1 by hitting a Federer-esque cross-court backhand passing shot. Which brings this to mind: it wasn’t all power from González in this match. There were angles, there were smart tactics, and wonderful improvisation. He hit winners off both wings in almost all shapes and sizes.
But yes, he did brutalize stuff with his forehand. Often.
After Haas forces a González error to set up game point, he starts yelling at himself in German. More on this later.
- How about this for an overhead? Soon after, we can hear more of Haas’ maniacal screaming. It’s break point, and set point. After another dipping backhand passing shot winner by González, the set is over.
That set lasted 28 minutes, González hit 17 winners, and drumroll please …
Zero unforced errors.
Just as the second set is about to start, one of the announcers says, “Tommy Haas has a mountain to climb, but it’s looking like Everest.” It’s more than appropriate, given Gonzo’s level.
In amusing news, González starts this set by hitting his first unforced error of the match, barely missing a forehand down-the-line.
- At 15-all, Gonzo smokes a forehand winner, but do keep watching, because it’s fantastic to hear the announcer describe just why this particular forehand is so remarkable: Haas’ ball has little pace, bounces high, yet Gonzo dumps a ton of speed on it and, “Haas is not within two meters of the ball.”
- The very next point is just ridiculous. Gonzo’s court coverage is bonkers. Haas’ reply? To chip and charge on Feña’s next serve. Impeccably, I might add. The announcer says, moments later, that it’s impossible for González to play like this over three sets. Guess what? Impossible is nothing.
- This is not a great shot, but it sure is amusing. Haas goes off the boil after a forehand unforced error (those have been creeping in more and more in this set), and starts screaming in German. It never ceases to be entertaining. In his defense, Haas hit a beautiful backhand down the line that should’ve been a winner, or at least forced an error from González. Safe to say, neither of those two scenarios happened.
A short moment later, Haas double faults the break away. Not good, Tommy. Not good.
One thing that I’m noticing is that Haas isn’t playing as well as I remember. He was sharp for most of the first set, but the level has dropped in this second stanza. And obviously, when you’re playing against someone in God mode, you don’t want to give breaks away by double faulting.
Moving along: González holds in about two seconds, so it’s 3-0. A good time to showcase Haas’ taste for wearing different shirts during matches. He’s been playing the second set with this number:
The shirt doesn’t even have the same collar as the first one he wore. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before – usually guys change into a different version of the same shirt – different color, different pattern – but not one that is an entirely different model, with a different collar. Maybe Haas collects tennis shirts at home, and just doesn’t like wearing the same one after it gets all sweaty. Anyhow, he just missed an easy overhead and his reaction was so non-existent that Carlos Ramos had to ask him whether he heard that it was called out. Tommy did hear the linesman, Carlos. He just didn’t have a reaction for it.
Unrelated: for some reason, the commentators on this broadcast seem to know the exact distance a ball was in or out. One of them just said that Haas’ overhead was 62 millimeters out. That’s pretty exact, no? Regardless, Haas regains his cool, wins four straight points and gets on the scoreboard for the first time in the second set.
- Noteworthy in the 3-1 service game by Gonzo? He hits three unforced errors. For some reason, they’re not logged as such. But he botched a backhand, an overhead, and a dropper. The three unforced errors are a little bit of a myth, then. At any rate, Feña comes up with some huge serves that only serve to rattle Haas even more, and he holds for 4-1. Haas starts yelling at Carlos Ramos about the last serve (it was clearly in), and even though Ramos admits to not seeing it, Haas doesn’t challenge. Instead, he just sits on his bench and looks homicidal:
- Here’s a demonstration of how well Fernando González was covering the court in January of 2007. Haas should have won the point much sooner, but González does what the Big 4 do these days: make you hit that extra ball. Over and over again.
Haas holds for 4-2, even after hitting his third double fault of the match. The commentators casually mention that González hasn’t hit a double fault today, nor in the quarterfinal drubbing of Nadal. His last double fault came in the Round of 16 match against James Blake. Total number of double faults in that match? One. Gonzo doesn’t roll that serve in, either.
- Look at this volley. And the ground covered to be able to hit said volley. Just nuts. Now the ultra-casual high-backhand volley. Then an ace, because … why not? 5-2. Haas has a rare love hold, and the Bomber from La Reina will try to serve out the set at 5-3.
During the changeover, the commentators talk about how González isn’t getting some unforced errors chalked up to his stats. I agree with them: Gonzo has had at least four in this set, one of which obviously didn’t get counted as such given the 42-and-three legend. However, there were no unforced errors in that first set. I’ll stand by that one.
- This is what Tommy Haas has to do to win a point when González is blasting away in God mode. This is probably the most remarkable point Haas won all match – he was under an overwhelming assault. The Chilean tsunami keeps moving forward, and it’s 40-15 in the blink of an eye. This fantastic volley seals the set.
Here are your second set stats:
Interesting. González gets credited for three unforced errors in that set, which is one lower than he should have. Does that mean none in the 3rd set? He actually played two Grand Slam semifinal sets without hitting an unforced error?
Also, poor Tommy Haas: he played a better set earlier, but only won one game in it. Things that happen when you’re playing a possessed tennis player.
- Tommy Haas is now serve-and-volleying. The first point is a success. The second point … not so much, because of yet another gorgeous backhand passing shot by González. The commentator notes that the Chilean has hit four of those in the match so far. After a Haas error, it’s 15-40. The first break point is saved bravely. The second one … let’s just say Tommy miscalculated his net approach. By a lot. Gonzo is now up two sets and a break.
- This down-the-line forehand is just unreal. The pace, the trajectory, it’s just incredible. Do watch both slo-mo replays. Particularly the second one. Mind-bending.
Watch the next point as well, because you will see a tennis ball get thoroughly bombed. At one point you start to wonder just how unlikely it is that someone can hit no more than five unforced errors in a match like this, while trying to hit forehands harder than you’ve ever seen. It just doesn’t make sense.
Before I forget: Tommy Haas changed shirts once again:
At least this is the same shirt from the second set, just in a different (and very ugly) color. If this were 2013, Tommy would have switched to a different brand by now.
- What do you do against forehands like these? I have no idea. Run. And hide. Haas does manage to string together some good points after the brutal forehands, and he holds for 1-2. During the changeover, he gets a massage on his thigh.
- What do you do against this? Shake your head.
- This just goes to show that even though Haas is getting thoroughly dismantled, he’s still fighting, still attacking. No matter, though: at 30-40, González hits about 10 straight backhand slices, diffusing Haas’ shots maddeningly, gets a look at a forehand, then another, and soon he’s up 4-1, with two breaks.
- At 4-1, 40-0, we could have had one of the greatest points in tennis history. Sadly, Feña hits the tweener long. However, the shot he hits before the tweener is just ridiculous – he got to a ball that had clipped the net and died not a few inches away. Gonzo ran full speed, dug the ball out, stopped short of running into the net, then ran full speed in the other direction following Haas’ lob. He still managed to hit a tweener pretty well – but long. When González hit the ball between his legs, the announcer said, “surely not.” Because if that shot had gone in, Rod Laver Arena would have crumbled. That point would’ve defied reality. Anyway, it doesn’t happen, but Gonzo still holds. He’s up 6-1, 6-3, 5-1.
- Match Point. “Fittingly, it ends with a winner,” says the announcer. Agreed. Gonzo got a great first passing shot in, and then finished Haas off with yet another backhand cross-court pass. This is how it looks when you win a match like this:
Was González as good as I remember him being? Almost. I had forgotten about that brief patch in the second set where he had a few unforced errors and looked human. But the Bomber was just as good as my memory had told me in the first and third sets. What was the combined unforced error total for those two sets? Zero.
The combined winners from those two sets?
It’s really beyond belief how González managed to be so incredibly violent, yet almost entirely error-free.
Unfortunately for the Chilean, the most talented player in tennis history was awaiting for him in the final. What’s worse, that individual was probably playing his best tennis ever – Roger Federer ended up winning the 2007 Australian Open without dropping a set, the only one of his seventeen Slams in which that has happened.
The Swiss has always been bad news for González. Just look at the head-to-head – before meeting in the final, Federer was 9-0 against him. And you know what? That head-to-head makes sense; Federer has a better serve, a better backhand, returns serve better, defends better, counterpunches better, and while his forehand is not as big as González’, it sure is more consistent and more versatile. It didn’t help that in the final, Gonzo was abandoned by the Tennis God who inhabited him during this semifinal against Haas. Federer won the final 7-6(2), 6-4, 6-4, and I don’t remember it being that close, really.
Still, Fernando González won’t ever forget what happened on that Australia Day of 2007. He probably won’t forget how well he hit every single one of his shots. How many crazy winners he hit. How impossible it was to beat him that day.
Whenever he remembers all of that, he’ll probably look to the heavens and say “Gracias.”