A Tommys Revolution: Why the Resurgence of Haas and Robredo is More Than Just a Storyline

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By Josh Meiseles, Special for Tennis Grandstand

Having grown up in a tennis-centric household just an hour’s drive from the USTA National Tennis Center in New York, ritual U.S. Open day trips were akin to my peers’ summer outings at the beach. Every August we’d make the mini-trek to Queens and marvel at Agassi’s baseline power, Kafelnikov’s precision, Chang’s agility and the serve-and-volley prowess of Sampras and Rafter.

My dad was a huge fan of Pistol Pete, so when he advanced to the final of the 2001 Hamlet Cup, a U.S. Open tune-up event now known as the Winston-Salem Open, we pounced at the prospect of seeing the 14-time Grand Slam champion on a more intimate stage than the cavernous bowels of Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Standing across the net from Sampras that day was a spry 23-year-old German named Tommy Haas. Ranked just outside the top-10 at the time, Haas was less than a year from vaulting to a career-high number two in the world, while Sampras was embarking on his farewell lap around the ATP Tour. I was only a freshman in high school at the time, but I was nonetheless impressed by Haas’s attacking presence and crisp strokes from both wings, as he ousted Sampras in three sets for his third career ATP title.

Tommy Haas won his 14th title in Munich last month

Twelve years later and Haas is still a force on the Tour, perhaps playing the best tennis of his life. His stunning upset of Novak Djokovic in Miami, and subsequent run to the semifinals, set the stage for his title in Munich one month later and a remarkable quarterfinal finish at Roland Garros this past week.

Rewriting the record books seemingly every week, from becoming the oldest player to beat a world number one in 30 years to becoming the oldest French Open quarterfinalist since 1971, Haas is once again on the cusp of the top ten. Did I mention he recently turned 35?

Among all his astounding achievements over the past year, which also includes an upset of Roger Federer in the 2012 Halle final, the most impressive came in the third round of the French Open last week, when, after being denied twelve match points against John Isner, he maintained his composure and somehow prevailed in five sets. A presumably spent Haas went on to destroy Mikhail Youzhny two days later, dropping just five games. That’s a feat most 25-year-olds would struggle to accomplish after a grueling four-and-a-half hour match.

A top 20 player for the majority of his career, boasting a high of number two in the world in 2002, Haas implements an exceptional all-around all-court game, anchored by a beautiful one-handed backhand. Having reached his first Wimbledon semifinal in 2009, after a 2008 season riddled with abdominal, shoulder and elbow issues, the German was primed for a late-career push at the age of 31. Then, less than a year later, it was revealed that he would need hip surgery and the German would not be seen on court again until mid-2011. He has since reached five ATP finals, winning two, and just achieved his best result at Roland Garros in twelve appearances. Words cannot describe the significance of his resurgence with his career on life support less than two years ago.

Considering the growing physical nature of the game over the past decade, the fact that no player has enjoyed consistent success in their mid-30s since Andre Agassi is understandable.

Haas’s longevity is a testament to not only his work ethic and conditioning, but to his ability to adjust to the modern game and find new ways to be aggressive without employing a physically taxing style of play. The same can be said for Tommy Robredo, who, at age 32, reached the quarterfinals this week after being absent from the ATP Tour with a leg injury. A year ago, Robredo was ranked 470 in the world and playing a Challenger event in Italy and Haas was outside the top-100 battling through the Roland Garros qualifying tournament.

While I am in no way refuting the claims that advancements in tennis (i.e. string technology and more rigorous physiotherapy methods) are potentially detrimental to players’ health in the long term, there is no doubt that such developments in nutrition and conditioning contribute to prolonging careers as well.

We are seeing more and more players, such as the two Tommys, in the top 30 at the age of 30. A late-career injury should no longer be considered a career death sentence; rather it’s an opportunity for a fresh start. There is no denying that the collective accomplishments of both Haas and Robredo at Roland Garros are a sign of inspiration as well. They may lack an intimidating weapon like a Nadal topspin-laced forehand, Djokovic’s penetrating groundstrokes or Isner’s bazooka serve, yet they are proving that grit and determination are powerful tools to have in your arsenal.

A short-fuse has long been Haas’s Achilles heel throughout his career, but with age comes maturity, and for the 35-year-old, a new lease on his career has yielded a newfound lucid attitude towards his game. He seems more passionate now than he ever was and his fiery competitive spirit is unwavering. Attribute that to his 3-year-old daughter, Valentina. When asked if retirement was a viable option during his hip surgery rehab, Haas stated, “It is too early for me to come back, but I assure you my daughter will see her dad play tennis.” Whenever you have something, or someone for that matter, to play for other than yourself, it provides a fresh source of motivation to continue fighting. At his 2011 U.S. Open press conference Haas mentioned, “It gives me another reason to work hard and try to achieve some things.”

For athletes of all sports, the stronger and more personal the motivating factor is, the more driven they are. It may seem rather obvious, but it couldn’t be more relevant to Haas’s success. And if you think he is inspired, imagine how his fellow 30-Year Club members are feeling, particularly David Nalbandian, who is recovering from injury while recently welcoming his first children as well. Haas’s resurgence could even potentially be a game-changer for younger players who are looking to model their playing styles after someone with his durability. The trend toward the physical grinding game is a slippery slope and one that is not associated with career longevity.

Haas will look to defend his Halle title next week while Robredo isn’t currently on an entry list for a Wimbledon tune-up event. Despite their mediocre career results at the All England Club, with no points to defend both men will be playing with house money and should be considered dark horses to make the second week.

Josh Meiseles manages the tennis blog The Sixth Set and you can follow him on Twitter at @TheSixthSet.

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