Tommy Haas exemplifies tennis’ lost generation.
Though it produced a few standouts—Gustavo Kuerten, Lleyton Hewitt, and Marat Safin had similar levels of success—the players that emerged in the latter half of the '90s were supposed to begin dominating in the early part of this decade and largely failed to do so.
The flashy Chilean, Marcelo Rios, was supposed to prove that speed, consistency, and ingenuity could compensate for a lack of size and power.
Ace machine Mark Philippoussis was supposedly just waiting to put his game together, and then surely he’d be a Wimbledon champion.
And Haas, along with Nicholas Kiefer, was Germany’s best hope in the post-Becker era. Haas had a game that fit neatly between the power of Philippoussis and the grace of Rios, standing 6’2" and possessing a varied arsenal of shots with his one-handed backhand as the centerpiece of his all-court game.
As Haas’ game was growing, he primarily stayed under the radar, letting Philippoussis, Rios, Kuerten, and others occupy the spotlight. Finally, he appeared ready to make his move in 2001 by winning the Masters Series shield in Stuttgart and putting up a series of strong results.
It paved his way for the 2002 Australian Open perhaps the most “open” of majors in this decade. Two-time defending champion Andre Agassi didn’t play due to injury.
The No. 1-ranked Hewitt, still not at home on Australia’s slow hard courts, fizzled out in the first round. The Grand-Slam king, Pete Sampras, was mired in a slump and fell to Safin in the Round of 16.
The time was right for Haas, but his draw was Herculean labor—pushed to five sets against Todd Martin in round three, then five sets against an up-and-coming Swiss kid named Roger (maybe you’ve heard of him), and then a tight four-setter against Rios.
His coach assured the press that the young German was fit enough to make it through his semifinal encounter with Safin, but who knows who he was trying to convince.
Haas took a two-sets-to-one lead against Safin before the full week of tennis in the oppressive Aussie humidity caught up with him, and he lost the last two 6-0, 6-2.
And so went Haas’ first, and maybe last, really good chance at Grand Slam glory. He remained at No. 2 behind Hewitt for most of the year, but he missed Wimbledon when his parents were seriously injured in a car accident. His career was further derailed by a shoulder injury, and the ensuing surgery kept him from fully returning to the tour until 2004.
By then, though, the tour was not nearly so open, as a new generation of players headed by that Swiss kid had supplanted the lost generation and was doing a better job of capitalizing on their opportunities.
After returning from his injury, Haas has displayed the same talent and versatility as before, often using it to overpower less-developed pros. In his long absence from the sport, though, it appeared his mental game had regressed.
At the 2004 U.S. Open, he had a highly-anticipated quarterfinal clash with Hewitt, only to lose all but six games. In the third round of the 2005 Roland Garros, he won only five games against Nicolay Davydenko, all of which were in the first set.
At the 2007 AO, he reached the semis again, only to take just five games from Fernando Gonzalez. At this year’s AO, he won just eight games from Rafael Nadal.
For a player as gifted as Haas, what does his tendency toward blowout losses suggest?
One possibility is that he lacks fighting spirit while another is that he’s missing a Plan B when his opponent’s aim is true.
It certainly isn’t an absence of talent; this is a player who has gone five sets against that Swiss guy three times in a major and won once.
The fact that he pushed that certain Swiss to five sets in the recent Roland Garros, only to watch it slip away, added to the lore that will surround that fabled tourney in which the Swiss completed a career Grand Slam.
But it may also have hinted at future results for Haas, who won at the Wimbledon warm-up event in Halle the week after Roland Garros.
He opened his Wimbledon campaign this year with a four-set win over the Austrian, Alexander Peya, and now he faces the big-serving lefty doubles specialist Michael Llodra. Should he prevail, he’d face the winner of the clash of the 6’6" club: Sam Querrey vs. Marin Cilic.
Beyond that, though, this quarter is as promising as any in Wimbledon, as the highest seed is Novak Djokovic, whom Haas beat in the Halle final and who has been far from confident recently.
Now at the age of 31, this may be Haas’ last chance for a deep run at Wimbledon. The early draw may be another labor for the German, but there probably won’t be any better chance to make up for the time he’s lost.