Tommy Haas: Renaissance Man

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Tommy Haas: Renaissance Man
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Tommy Haas, who is always in renaissance, is in renaissance.

A player that had the “tennis world at his size 12s,” in the words of Stephen Bierley (The Guardian, 1999), Haas has seldom been in a position to capitalise on his irrevocable talent. The best indication of what might have become of his career is his rise to number two in the world in 2002.

At that time, with Pete Sampras moving towards retirement, Andre Agassi not far from his final major title and Marat Safin stagnating, there was something of a power vacuum in men’s tennis. Entering his prime and with two Australian Open semifinal appearances behind him, it would not have been fanciful to have placed Haas with the likes of David Nalbandian, Andy Roddick and Roger Federer in the race to fill it.

From that point, such peers streaked ahead while Haas found himself on a carousel of injury and tragedy, not playing at all in 2003 due to persistent physical complaints and the need to tend to his ailing parents who were recovering from a motorcycle accident. Just like now, he had to return as a castaway, beginning the second stage of his career with a hyphen where his ranking should be. Undeterred, he went on to reach the sharp end of several more majors but never managed to evade the treatment table for a full season.

A hip injury placed Haas in his second extended exile—he was gone so long that some news outlets claimed he was coming out of retirement. With only a solitary doubles match in his legs, he threw himself into the first round at Roland Garros, losing to Marsel Ilhan in four sets in what was a largely throat-clearing exercise. For his second match, he moved to more familiar ground, taking on Andreas Seppi in Halle this week.

He earned an early break in the first set, striding into a 2-0 lead and displaying all the hallmarks of his thrilling all-court game. Daringly, and perhaps in light of his small energy reserves at this stage of his comeback, Haas used serve and volley tactics almost exclusively on his first serve and regularly on his second.

This was allied with crisp ground strokes from both sides and fearless, naive serving which leaked the usual flow of double faults. It was refreshing to watch a true disc jockey at work while Seppi jabbed at his iPod.

The mind drifted to the German’s last telling contribution when winning the same tournament in 2009, beating Novak Djokovic in the final. He would beat the Serbian player again during his memorable run to the semifinals at Wimbledon, before succumbing to the irresistible force of Roger Federer.

Hard courts had always seemed to be Haas’s natural home but at 31, he seemed to revel in the chance to bring his craft and variety to a surface where pure physicality does not dominate quite so much. Indeed, Wimbledon has recently been nirvana for the geriatrics of the tennis world—see Jonas Bjorkman’s and Rainer Schuettler’s incomprehensible staggers to the semi-finals in 2006 and 2008 respectively.

It seems funny now, that as a young player, variety was seen to be one thing that was missing from Haas’s game. That was the time when Sampras and Pat Rafter could be seen as paradigms rather than anachronisms. Now, Haas seems so attacking that he could be auditioning for “tennis player” in a Roscoe Arbuckle motion-picture.

Perhaps he has benefited from being caught between two worlds as a player, allying the forecourt play of the Sampras era with the brute exchanges of the present.

On this occasion however, the grass was soon turning to quicksand. Haas proceeded to lose the next seven games. Seppi was suddenly inspired; firing winners from all angles and appreciating the target that his opponent offered him. While games were becoming a rarity, Haas sent a volley of trademark spiels reverberating around the Gerry Weber stadium, earning an early code violation. Any thought that Haas might be mellowing in his dotage was dismissed. After the early promise, Seppi had sprinted to the first set 6-2.

The Italian then earned an early break in the second set and the position was looking irreconcilable. However, the monotone Seppi is a fairly vapid player when his baseline game is not working and he suddenly tailed off. Haas broke back immediately and both players began holding serve comfortably. A tie-break was the inevitable conclusion and it proved to be a tense affair. Seppi reached match point at 6-5 but Haas saved it after a gritty exchange. He followed it up with a marvellous stop volley to earn a set point which was duly converted.

You would expect the momentum to be with the victor but the effort only served to earn an increasingly weary Haas another set of practice. Profligacy returned to his game and Seppi won the deciding set comfortably 6-3.

Haas now looks to Wimbledon, where he will use his protected ranking of 20 to gain entry. He displayed enough against Seppi that, given a fair draw, he may have a chance of progress on what remains a niche surface to some extent. There is an inevitable ceiling on what he can achieve in his “third career”—age was on his side for previous resurgences. Whatever happens, a player of his rare flamboyance should be savoured for as long as he lasts.

Tantalisingly, there will always be a sense of unfinished business.

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