The last time Tommy Haas beat the top player in the world, it was 1999 and Haas was just a few years into his then promising pro career. Ranked No. 11 at the time, Haas upset then No. 1 Andre Agassi at the Grand Slam Cup, a lucrative year-end event held at the end of the season.
After that, the young German was expected to do big things and he fulfilled that early promise by climbing to as high as No. 2 in the world in 2002. But by then, Haas was already dealing with injuries that would soon plague him for over a decade. He would do well, and then be forced to have surgery that would sideline him for months, only to return again to try and make up for lost time.
Though he was back inside the top 20 by 2009, more injuries and more surgeries forced him out again and caused him to completely fall out of the rankings. But he came back in a big way last year. He beat Federer in a memorable final at Halle and by the end of 2012 he was the oldest player inside the top 50 – a feat that earned him ATP Comeback Player of the Year honors.
Now Haas, who turns 35 next week, has seemingly turned back time again with a surprise yet totally convincing upset win over another World No. 1 — this time the Serbian Djokovic — in the fourth round of the Sony Open Tennis event in Miami. On a chilly night, it was Haas who was red hot as he used his arsenal of all-court tennis tactics to disrupt Djokovic for a straight sets win.
“It’s tough obviously. It’s one of the biggest challenges out there,” Haas said about his victory over Djokovic. “You know, even looking at Djokovic’s results the last two years, two‑and‑a‑half years, it’s just crazy, you know. You look at Federer’s last eight, nine years, and Nadal, how tough they are and maintaining that level. It’s something really special. Not everybody has that gift. So I’m happy to have done it somehow a little bit tonight.”
For Haas, who many thought would have quit by now rather than grind through slowly climbing back up the ranks for an opportunity like last night, the victory was especially sweet.
“You know, somewhere in the middle of last year, sometime in April, May, my body sort of adjusted a lot, got better, and I could train. You know, if you can’t train and put in the hard yards in this sport anymore, you know, you’re not going to get far,” Haas said after being asked if he thought he would ever have another shot at beating another No.1. “You know, not at least to the point where maybe you have a chance against a top player. From experience, you know, luckily I know that, and luckily I’m a guy that likes to work out and gets in the best shape that I can possibly can, my body allowing. You know, right now I feel pretty good, as good as I have in a long time, and, you know, just never give up.”
Never giving up, despite what others might think when you reach a certain age, appears to be the mantra for several players over 30 these days on the ATP tour. From James Blake and Lleyton Hewitt, who like Haas, dealt with multiple injuries to Jurgen Melzer who at age 31 finds himself in the quarterfinals of Miami as well, finding personal success on the court, no matter what your ranking or age is on a given week, is something that anyone who enjoys watching or playing the sport can take inspiration from.
For Haas, his inspiration to stay with it is his young daughter Valentina who, along with her mother, were bundled up but cheering on Haas from the stands last night during his bravura performance. It’s having his daughter be able to watch her father do what he loves most that keeps Haas motivated.
“It was a small dream come true for me,” Haas told ATP.com recently about having his daughter near the courts with him. “I’ve always said when I became a father, how special it would be to see my daughter in my box. I know it’s a little cheesy sometimes, but to have those memories one day is going to be fantastic.”
For Tommy Haas, who is back in the top 20 and expected to climb even higher now, the memories he keeps making, like last night, more than make up for the time spent on the sidelines and the “what might have been” comments from observers of the sport. Haas keeps proving that it’s never too late to have a pro career on your terms and that his final chapter in tennis is still very much up to him to write.