Tommy Haas dismantled young, talented Alexandr Dolgopolov 6-3, 6-2, to advance to the fourth round of the Sony Ericsson Open, where he will take on world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. The match will be an intriguing look at two talented tennis players with very different careers.
Haas's tennis career never turned out the way he had planned. The talented German, who once trained at Nick Bollettieri’s famed academy for young rising stars, will be 35 years old next week. He once battled champions like Pete Sampras and rose to No. 2 in the rankings, but can only look forward without a storybook career of Grand Slam titles.
There is still rugged beauty in the way Haas hits his big single backhand or picks his moments to come to the net and flash the skills that showed so much promise. His flashy youthfulness is gone, and he now sports shorter dark hair and scruffy elegance in place of the long locks and backward baseball cap that were so much a part of his former image.
But there is still so much aura about the way Haas has persevered, like a legendary Teutonic knight who has survived battles and wounds that would have killed an ordinary warrior. He has tasted star potential, big matches, tragedy, injuries and a journeyman’s comeback.
There were times he could have walked away from tennis, and no one would have faulted him, but he plays on with his own frame of perspective and peace. Last June, Haas told the AP, via ESPN, that "I hope the body holds up for many years to go. I love to play."
Haas was unique from the other young players of his lost generation. He didn’t have Andy Roddick’s serve or Lleyton Hewitt’s speed, but his all-court skills were magnificent, eventually producing titles on all three surfaces.
He could adapt and strategize his game to attack all varieties of opponents and their weaknesses. Marat Safin said his backhand was one of the best in the game. He played in a strong and graceful way, and it was believed that once he had developed greater consistency and experience, he might become one of the greats of his time.
Early on, Haas showed a bit of a temper, though hardly comparable to Safin and his mercurial success. Another one of his contemporaries, Roger Federer, also struggled to gain control of his emotions and talents. They were a competitive lot who wanted to grab the post-Pete Sampras era by the tail and create their own great destinies. Tennis fans admired their grit.
By 2002, Haas rose to No. 2 in the ATP Rankings. At Rome, he destroyed Andy Roddick, who said (via the New York Times) that he had not been dominated that easily since childhood. Haas was also a two-time Australian Open semifinalist and looked ready to win Grand Slam championships.
Fates and Furies
Life and tennis are inseparable, and nobody wins without a strong support system. There are primeval forces swirling through young careers with all manner of potential destruction: fame, wealth, temptation, success and failure. Oftentimes, a player’s flowering talent can be contingent on timing.
In June 2002, Haas’s parents were in a serious motorcycle accident. The experience shook him up, according to Selena Roberts of the New York Times, who wrote a stirring article shortly after the tragedy. It's a haunting time capsule that shows Haas’s life shift forever, and, as it would turn out, become a pattern of adversity that would plague his career.
He took time off from the tour to help his parents. He came back out-of-form and immediately hurt his right shoulder. He would never be quite the same. Operations and injuries, every player’s greatest fears, would ravage his consistency and all but undermine his opportunity to become a star.
By mid-decade, Federer had taken over the tour and all but obliterated the other injury-ravished or flawed members of his generation. Former No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero couldn't regain his form. Even the beleaguered David Nalbandian and once-promising Xavier Malisse would find their careers more wayward and unfulfilled. Harsh reality rarely lends a helping hand.
The past decade has seen Haas’ ranking rise and fall with seismographic peaks and valleys. He missed significant action in 2008 and 2011, dropping out of the rankings altogether. He also reminded the ATP of his talent with Grand Slam semifinals at Australia 2007 and Wimbledon 2009. Retirement was always imminent, and by 2012, he was forgotten to all but tennis dilettantes.
How would it be to be Tommy Haas?
His dreams of stardom would never pan out, and this may have been much more difficult than the typical journeyman who knew that he was never top-flight talent. Does he look around and wonder if he could have been handling the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic? How close he was to his tennis dreams, only to see them vanish before they ever had a chance.
Though all comparisons to compatriots Boris Becker and Steffi Graf were long vanished, Haas continued to yo-yo between injuries and testing his broken body with professional tennis. He opened January 2012 ranked No. 205. He was approaching his mid-30s, was recently married and had a one-year-old daughter. Haas kept playing.
Then in June, with tennis’s fabled stage on grass, Haas reached back into the past and found more magic. He defeated Federer to win the Halle title. "It's my 13th title...It's probably up there (as the best), if not the sweetest one, especially considering the injuries," Haas reflected through the AP via ESPN.
Even Federer (same article) graciously recognized the achievement from his contemporary and friend:
I'm just really happy for him ... happy that he's been able to fight off so many injuries and come back and still believe in himself, still want to travel, still want to sacrifice his family (life) too.
Haas was named comeback player of 2012. He is currently ranked No. 18 in the world, and perhaps, singing his swan song. Age and injuries are uncompromising foes, and at some point, he will wake up and know that his body can no longer compete in professional tennis against younger, stronger generations.
He never became the star many thought he would become, but he was never really a journeyman either, even if he had to suffer through so many of the vicissitudes of fate and career. He was not always able to participate, but his mind and heart were with tennis, and he patiently capitalized on the opportunities he had rather than belabor the moments that could have been.
There is inspiration in Haas’ tennis. He may or may not defeat Djokovic, the world's best player. It's uncertain how many more magical moments he has, but he is a credit to the difficulties and sacrifices in a tennis pro’s dedicated career.
Long after tennis, Haas will be remembered.