Killing Time

Tuesday, March 26, 2013 /by

MIAMI, Fla.—They began digging up the statistics early in the second set, after Tommy Haas broke top-ranked Novak Djokovic for the third time on this windy, uncharacteristically cold night in Key Biscayne. When was the last time Haas beat the No. 1 player in a tournament? Who was the oldest guy ever to beat the No. 1 player? Who was the last German player to beat a No. 1? Is there an age limit on wearing your baseball cap backward?

The answers to the first three of those questions neatly framed what Haas seemed on the verge of accomplishing: Rainer Schuettler was the last German to beat the top-ranked player, toppling Andy Roddick at the 2003 Tennis Masters Cup. The last time Haas beat the No. 1 player was even further back, over a dozen years ago at the 1999 Grand Slam Cup, against Andre Agassi. And if Haas managed to hang on and upset the top dog here, he’d be the oldest player in 30 years (or more) to accomplish that feat.

So the odds of Haas actually pulling it off were not very good, despite the way he’d jerked Djokovic all over the court in the course of overwhelming him in the first set, 6-2. Haas played those first eight games with nearly demonic fury, unleashing furious groundstrokes and pinpoint passing shots as if he were playing for his life, and the opponent across the net were someone even more indomitable than the great Nole—Father Time himself.

It took a remarkable amount of hubris, as well as an amazing constitution, to play with such flagrant disregard for the reality of age. It seemed too good to be true, so it was hardly surprising when the odds of Haas pulling off the upset suddenly grew a lot longer.

Haas had broken Djokovic for the third time in the match in the first game of the second set, and had three break points to go up 3-0—and another break point that would have given him a 4-1 lead. But Djokovic somehow survived all those threats, and in the sixth game he suddenly broke Haas like a dry stick, without the loss of a point.

In the blink of an eye, it seemed, Djokovic reeled off 12 unanswered points to leap ahead to 4-3, and most of those blue-lipped, shivering folks in the stadium had to be thinking, Well, Haas is going to be 35 in a few days anyway; it was fun while it lasted. . .

Haas may have been the only person in Crandon Park who wasn’t thinking along those lines. But he had his reasons. The other day, I asked him if he ever felt like he’d lost something to age, despite how well he was playing. He told me:

“I question myself sometimes. At Indian Wells, I had trouble seeing. Was it my eyes, from age? Or the lights? Or the desert heat? There’s always something not quite working for you, maybe age has something to do with that.

“But if you work hard on your training, do all the right things to stay in good shape, then it’s all up to what you do out there. You just try to play your best tennis at the right time. It comes down to a few points, always, here and there. If you can play those points better than your opponent on that day, you’re on the winner’s side. If you not, you lose.”

On Tuesday night, after Djokovic reeled off those aforementioned dozen points, Haas didn’t second guess himself, nor did he think of that afternoon in 2009 when he had Roger Federer in desperate straits in the fourth round of the French Open—he led by two sets and a break in that one—only to lose those critical “few points.”

Instead, Haas thought: “I had a break point to go up 4-1 and I didn’t convert it. Then I lost all those points and he was up 4-3. I wasn’t happy with the way I gave those points away. But I didn’t think anything else of it. . .I just tried to re-group on the changeover and told myself, ‘Try to hold here to go to 4-all and keep it tight. If you have a chance, play a little different than before.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”

Haas tightened up his game and held with ease for 4-all. Then he forced Djokovic into another long game in which Haas reached break point following a 25-hit rally ending with backhand error by the Serb. Djokovic survived that threat, but Haas quickly reached break point again, and then made good on his decision to play a little differently. After a brief rally, he attacked and hit a backhand volley winner to secure the key break for 5-4. He held to end the match, 6-2, 6-4.

“All credit to him,” Djokovic said afterward. “He was the better player, no question about it.”

The question, of course, is how and why Haas is able to produce such brilliant tennis with such regularity. After all, he’s the oldest player anywhere near the elite level, presently No. 18.

For one thing, Haas has been utterly devoted and diligent since coming back from multiple surgeries and assorted ailments, bent on squeezing every possible drop of success out of his career until the day when he wakes up and feels that “something is missing,” that the payoff just isn’t worth the discipline and effort.

Beyond that, though, Haas told me something else the other day. He said, “I was always, and in many ways, an ambitious kid. A very competitive kid. When you’re like that, who knows what you can do? But sometimes when you’re young you can be too competitive and too ambitious. You want it so badly, maybe you get too emotional, or too tight.

“Those are things you have to work on. Having a poker face, or not having one. Controlling yourself. If you’re competitive and ambitious and you train the right way, what’s in the way? If you have two legs and can run and get in shape—go do it. If you sit at home and watch TV it’s not going to happen. It’s just hard work and discipline. But also, if you you work hard and see results, it really helps. If you give it everything you’ve got and it’s not working, then I think it’s the right time to stop.”

After Haas won his third-round match out on the Grandstand over Alexandr Dolgopolov, he held an impromptu family reunion of sorts. His toddler daughter ran away from her mother and onto the court, as did coach Nick Bollettieri and Tommy’s father, Peter. They celebrated with hugs all around. Peter, you may remember, nearly died in a horrible motorcycle crash some years ago.

“The accident took a lot out of him,” Tommy said. “But he works out every day, even though he’s 65 now. And he looks good for his age. That’s something maybe I get from him. I have a little bit of that in me, that strength and desire to keep going.”

You could almost say that Father Time and father Peter are engaged in a spirited tug of war for Tommy Haas, and it appears that Peter may be winning.

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