Tommy sure is no Haas-been
It's been a good Slam for men in their 30s. For one thing, there's no shortage of company. There were 37 players aged 30 and over at the beginning of the French Open, the most of any Slam in the Open era. And why not? It's always fashionable to belong to any club Roger Federer is a member.
And they haven't just been along for the ride, showing quality as well as quantity. Just look at the French guys who have thrilled the local crowds during the first week. Nicolas Mahut, 30, defeated Andy Roddick in the first round and made it to the third round for the first time. Arnaud Clement, 34, played a five-setter made memorable when his opponent, Alex Bogomolov Jr., was struck with cramps at match point and had to retire. And then Thursday, Paul-Henri Mathieu, 30, held the center-court crowd spellbound for 76 games -- a tournament record -- as he defeated John Isner 18-16 in the fifth.
When all was said and done, eight 30-year-olds remained by the third round -- that's 25 percent of the field.
But even among this graying crowd, one player stands out. Tommy Haas, 34, is still standing among the 30-year-olds. And he's done it the hard way, coming through qualifying to reach the main draw and then winning two rounds -- a total of five match wins. He next plays Richard Gasquet.
"My body's feeling pretty good right now, which is great," Haas told ESPN.com after getting into the main draw. "It allows me to play some solid tennis again the last couple of months. And you know, now it's all about trying to get back into it, play a lot of matches."
More than 10 years after he reached a career high of No. 2 in the world, the dashing German is still out there, hitting his one-handed backhand with the same flair as always. A lot has changed: He has acquired American citizenship, become a husband and father, and required repair on an awful lot of body parts.
The first signs of Haas' resurgence came last month in Munich, where, out of nowhere, he reached the semifinals as a wild card. The momentum he got from that unexpected run, and the wild support he received from the crowds, is still running through him.
"Obviously playing well in Munich helped me, playing in front of my family and my German fans, sort of gave me a little bit of a push," he said. "But you know, I surprised myself a little bit there for sure. I played really solid tennis there the first three matches; didn't play a bad match against Marin Cilic [in the semifinals]. He just played better that day than me.
"Just trying to hold on to that right now and obviously still improve. I always know that if I play up to my potential, it's going to be tough to beat. That's the way I look at it.''
The desire to live up to that potential, for another day, another match, is part of what keeps him coming back -- as long as the temperatures are right.
"If the weather is nice and warm and my body is sort of warm and feeling good, I think I'm still capable of doing some good stuff on the tennis court," Haas said. "And that gives me motivation and that gives me the need to work hard to still enjoy it.
"I would say for me it's just always a pleasure to still be playing at such a high level with these guys, because I've been around for so long. I've seen the era of, obviously, when my idol Becker retired and Michael Stich. I still got to play those guys.
"And then obviously the Sampras-Agassi era, which was great. And now being with [the] Rafa, Federer and Djokovic era, it's exciting. So I'm really still enjoying it and trying to keep up with those guys."
Arnaud Clement, the oldest man in the draw, certainly understands. "I think that when you get to a certain age, if you're 32, 33, 34, and you still play, it means that we all have this passion for this sport," he said. "Tommy Haas, as well, he's only a year younger than I am, and he's gone through the qualification rounds. We practiced in Miami with him. He played really tough tennis for a while. Why does he do this? It's not for money. It's because he loves tennis."
Haas has another reason: his daughter, Valentina, born to him and his wife, actress Sara Foster, in 2010. They aren't with him on this trip but are not far from his thoughts.
"My daughter is a year and a half," he told reporters during the tournament . "If I can play another year, year and a half, maybe she gets to [remember seeing] me play at a real high level still, which is another goal of mine. I don't know if I'll make it, but I'll try."
He reports that his daughter has learned how to say "Come on" while watching Daddy during this tournament.
There are plenty of reasons for Haas to continue playing, with his free-flowing, graceful game, an increasing rarity on the circuit. "When I grew up, I always tried to play the real pretty sort of game in many ways. That's how my dad taught me," he said.
Although Haas also wants to carry on, his uncertainty stems from how often his body has betrayed him. Haas' list of surgeries reads something like this:
• January 1996: right ankle surgery
• December 1996: broke his left ankle, requiring surgery
• December 2002: right shoulder rotator cuff surgery
• July 2003: arthroscopic surgery, again on right shoulder
• November 2007: more shoulder surgery
• February 2010: right hip surgery
• March 2010: right elbow surgery
There have been other challenges as well: a bad motorcycle accident involving his parents in 2002, in which he missed six weeks. He had to pull out of Wimbledon in 2005 after spraining his ankle on a ball lying around on the court. And that's not counting the usual aches and pains, like the knee problems he experienced earlier this year.
That's why he's now taking his career as it comes. "I just don't know what my body will do the next few months or the next year or two, so just trying to enjoy and play the tournaments I haven't played for a while," he said.
However, Haas' current ranking of No. 112 means he will have to rely on the generosity of tournament organizers to grant him a wild card.
He will next play tournaments in Hamburg and Stuttgart, both in his native Germany, and then Wimbledon, where he hopes to receive a wild card. He will also play the Olympics if he receives a wild card, and then some warm-up tournaments in the United States in preparation for the U.S. Open. And after that, "we'll see."
He seems determined to enjoy it while he can. We should as well.
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