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Steve Flink: Haas bows out in style

6/2/2012 4:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Heading into his third round contest against the stylish Frenchman Richard Gasquet, Tommy Haas was the oldest man left in the men’s draw. The enduring German is 34. He has been a professional since 1996. And he has had his share of injuries and setbacks across the years. Yet Haas has managed to fight nobly against time, to bounce back with brio time and again after bouts with injuries, to keep himself out there credibly in the field of competition. He has been one of the most admirable players I have seen from his generation, a thoroughly well-rounded, all-court competitor, a man who can perform with verve and competence on any surface, a credit to his trade.

So I was sorry to see him depart at this French Open. Haas played an impressive opening set against Gasquet. They exchanged early service breaks before settling that chapter in a tie-break. Haas sparkled in that sequence. He earned a 3-1, mini-break lead with one of his patented inside-out forehand winners. After Gasquet took the next point, Haas was unstoppable. He executed a judicious drop shot that set up a forehand volley winner down the line into an open court. That made it 4-2 for the German. He advanced to 5-2 when the Frenchman miss-hit a backhand return. He got to 6-2 when a beleaguered Gasquet double faulted. Two points later, Haas wrapped it up seven points to three. It seemed entirely possible then that he might topple the No. 17 seed.

But Haas lacked the physical resources to stay with his younger and more energetic rival. Gasquet, who will be 26 in a few weeks, elevated his game decidedly over the last three sets, unleashed winners at will, and gave the gallery one of his typically dazzling displays off the backhand, which is one of the most natural and free flowing shots in tennis. Gasquet clipped Haas 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-0, 6-0, playing with growing assurance, exploiting an adversary who was clearly weary and depleted. That was unfortunate for the fans, who were denied the opportunity to witness a closer and more compelling skirmish.

And yet, there were good reasons why Haas faded so much over the last two sets. For the first time since the 1996 U.S. Open—his rookie year as a pro—he had to play the qualifying at a major. He won three matches to earn a place in the main draw, and then he cast aside Filippo Volandri and Sergiy Stakhovsky to reach the third round of the main draw. That was no mean feat for the German, who is currently ranked No. 112 in the world. He had right hip surgery in February of 2010. One month later, he had surgery on his right elbow. In all of 2010, he played a grand total of ten matches. In 2011, he appeared in 19 matches. His match record for those two difficult years was a paltry 10-16.But this season has been a time of resurgence for Haas. He has a winning match record and his victories at Roland Garros will put him back among the top 100 in his sport. The view here is that Haas is to be commended for being willing to put himself through the rigor of competing with so many players who have youth entirely on their side of the net. He could make some good money by concentrating on playing the Champions Series Tour and ATP senior events. That would be a forum of competition that would allow the German to flourish. He would have the chance to be paid well and to prosper under much less demanding circumstances.

But Haas plainly is still willing to confront the younger generation on the ATP World Tour because he relishes the challenge, because he loves playing the game of tennis and testing himself against the best the game has to offer. Consider his history as a player. In 1999, he reached his first semifinal at a Grand Slam event in Melbourne, concluding that season at No. 11 in the world. Two years later, he finished at No. 8. In May of 2002, he soared to a career best No. 2 in the world after opening his campaign that year with another semifinal appearance at the Australian Open. It was no accident that he got so close to the very top of his profession ten years ago.

He remained at or near the forefront of tennis for many more years, and it was never surprising to find him engaged in important duels against renowned adversaries on any surface. In 2007, he showed up in the semifinals of the Australian Open. He also made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open that season. Two years later, in the spring and summer of 2009, Haas was front and center again at the majors. At Roland Garros, he confronted Roger Federer in the round of 16 at Roland Garros. This was one day after Rafael Nadal had suffered an astonishing upset at the hands of Robin Soderling. Federer realized a golden opportunity awaited him on the red clay with Nadal out of the way.

Yet Federer narrowly escaped defeat against a formidable Haas. The German was up two sets to love. At 4-4 in the third set, he had a break point. Knowing how close his opponent was to serving for the match, the Swiss went for broke, and released a spectacular inside-out forehand winner. That critical moment turned the match around, and a highly charged Federer survived in five sets. He went on to stop Soderling to complete a career Grand Slam. Meanwhile, Haas surged into the semifinals of Wimbledon a few weeks later with a victory over Novak Djokovic, bowing against Federer in a well-played, straight set contest. It was the following year, of course, when Haas had the two surgeries.

His aspirations now have surely been altered. Haas can’t expect to return to a place among the top ten or twenty in the world. But if he can stay healthy, the top 50 will not necessarily be beyond his reach. The way I see it, Haas’s brief but stirring journey to the third round of the world’s premier clay court championship was one of the most welcome sights of the tournament’s first week. It would have been nice if he could have lasted longer in the draw. I wish he could have sustained his early match form against Gasquet. But the fact remains that he is reminding all of us—and even himself—that a man in his mid-thirties can still play inspiring and top of the line tennis as long as he paces himself and doesn’t play too many tournaments. The ceiling is considerably lower now for Tommy Haas than it once was, but the hope here is that he will keep playing his still remarkable brand of tennis for a few more years.

That would be good thing for Haas, and great for all of us who have admired his work ethic and talent for such a long time.