By Jane Voigt
No one expected Tommy Haas to win this Open — his fifteenth, and at the age of 34 the oldest man in the singles draw. And no one honestly expected Ernests Gulbis to come back from two sets down to defeat the German.
But he did, 46 46 75 64 64 in his first-round match.
Fans roared in excitement for both men, the sentimentality of Haas’s strength and endurance raising the audible level to heights that out-stripped those for Gulbis, a lion slayer with a roller-coaster ranking history.
The outcome takes nothing away from Tommy Haas. He remains blessed in all things tennis. He’s played in over 750 career matches and rose to #2 in the world way back in 2002. His year is a testament to dedication and, probably, his adoration for his young family and daughter, Valentino.
Haas’s survival in tennis through tragedy and injury are a testament. He claims that his fitness has kept him closely competitive in the physicality of 21 Century tennis. Gulbis will be 24 tomorrow. He won this match by a lucky whisper and a new determination, unseen over his roller-coaster ranking of a career.
Haas turned pro in 1996 — 16 years ago. He’s played through the technological swing to lighter and more powerful racquets, plus the onset of polyester strings which accelerate spin and speed, and allow pros to slug away without fear of losing ball control.
“Tennis has become so much more physical,” Haas told Matt Fitzgerald in his ATP post, Tommy Haas: Adapting With Age. “I’ve put in a lot more hours off the court to stay fit. I do weights, yoga, and Pilates … whatever it takes to feel comfortable. I’ve had a lot of injuries as well, so I’ve had to step back and try to get back into shape a number of times.”
Haas’s most recent surgery was in February, 2010, and focused on his hip. It kept him away from the game until May 2011. His recovery was hampered with set backs as his body compensated for aches and pains related to his hips, like his back. His confidence grew along with his physical recovery, but was the element of his tennis that took the most attention.
Haas was ranked outside the top 200, at the start of this year. It has been marked by victories over top ten players, most notably Roger Federer who Haas beat in the final at Halle, Germany, for his second title since 2009. He was the finalist in Washington three weeks ago, losing only to the champion — Alexandr Dolgopolov.
Although he walked off court without the ‘w’ today, Haas demonstrated why he has caused problems for so many. He can do it all.
His one-handed backhand whipped winners up-the-line, as Gulbis’s head dropped in discouragement early on in the match. Haas thwarted the Latvian, running down balls, changing their direction, feathering them over the net. His control of the fuzzy yellows was imaginative and deadly accurate.
Ernest Gulbis is no slouch, mind you. He was the only player at the 2009 Wimbledon to take Rafael Nadal past three sets on his way to his first title there. He’s beaten Federer on clay, and took out Tomas Berdych in the first round of Wimbledon this year. The fact that he disappears early in slams, even though he starts with a bang, has flattened enthusiasm from the sport.
His serve is flawless and his forehand one of the fastest. But he’s bounced from coach to coach, trying myriad approaches that would lasso his talents and direct him to a steady climb in the rankings.
He is the son of a wealthy oil baron and flies the world in private jets. He loved to party, and hung close with Novak Djokovic back in the day of the Niki Pilic Tennis Academy.
Gulbis today reflected on the exterior what Haas has mastered, calm. It wasn’t always like that for the hot-headed German. He’s destroyed his share of racquets, made chair umpires squirm, and has ranted at coaches as they sat silent in his box.
Nick Bollettieri probably has some choice Haas tales to spin, as he landed at the IMG Academy at 11 and remained there for the bulk of his tennis rearing.
If only Haas had kept the break in the third set and closed out the match.
But Gulbis served 24 aces, smacked 70 winners, and won 35 out of 54 points at the net. Perhaps what saved him was confidence, the vapory aspect that can flip a switch at opportune times to the detriment of those you’d rather see stick around.