by Rob Morgan
Heading into Indian Wells, Novak Djokovic seemed almost invincible. Stanislas Wawrinka and Andy Murray were the only players to test him at the Australian Open and in Dubai, he breezed past some of his leading rivals without even conceding a set. Even when playing badly, it seemed like Djokovic had an unbreakable psychological hold over his opponents, effectively beating them before they’d even taken to court.
But came first Juan Martin Del Potro and then Tommy Haas. While Del Potro showed the heart of Grand Slam champion to bludgeon his way past the world number one in the Indian Wells semis - hitting back from a break down in the final set; Haas exploited the windy conditions perfectly in Miami, refusing to let Djokovic find his lethal hitting rhythm from the back of the court by using every option in his lengthy playbook to mix things up.
In both cases, when it came to the crunch moments both Del Potro and Haas played without hesitation and with great conviction that they could win. Djokovic losing in the fourth round of a Masters event (or indeed any tournament) has been unthinkable these past few years and perhaps it will give the rest of the players ranked outside the top five the belief that they can pull off an upset against the big guns.
As I’ve written before, men’s tennis has become very predictable due to the rise of Djokovic and Murray to join Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the top of the men’s game. While both are fantastic players and Djokovic in particular deserves to go down among the all-time greats, it’s all the more exciting when there’s the chance of the odd upset. Too often most of Djokovic’s matches have seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Haas’ wealth of experience certainly played a big part in his 6-2, 6-4 win. He beat Roger Federer in Halle last summer and has made three Grand Slam semi-finals during his career so he knows what it takes to deliver on the big stages.
“I had the mentality tonight going out there believing in it (that he could win). You've got to, you know,” he told the press afterwards. “Just from last week, playing somebody like Del Potro (who he lost to in Indian Wells) who gives me quite a bit of trouble, I sort of had a game plan. I went out (against Del Potro) and nothing seemed to really work and I didn't really have a game plan B. I was just frustrated with the way I played and tried to totally focus and tried to approach this match totally different.”
“You know, last couple of times I played Novak was in Shanghai last year and Toronto, and Toronto we had a really good battle, which I was really happy about the way I played; he played just better in the end. Tonight I had a good game plan, I thought. Conditions, maybe now looking back, favoured me a little bit with the game that I played against him tonight. It was tough out there with the swirling wind.”
“I'm just really happy and proud of that tonight against such a great player who has been dominating the sport the past couple of years. I really took advantage of the opportunities I've gotten. I think I played extremely well.”
Haas turns 35 next week and it’s incredible that he’s still mixing it at this level. In a way all his injuries have aided his longevity as he still feels that his body’s quite fresh, having spent so long on operating tables around the world. There’s a realistic chance that he might crack the top ten later this year especially if he can go deep at either the French Open or Wimbledon and Haas says he sometimes finds it tough to believe that his comeback has been such a success.
“There were times I wouldn't have believed that, no way,” he said. “But when I came back after my hip surgery it was a gruelling 9 months, 12 months before I actually felt like I can sort of train again and get in better shape and maybe feel like I can move and give myself a chance to at least try to go for some victories again that I would enjoy. Somewhere in the middle of last year, sometime in April, May, my body sort of adjusted a lot, got better, and I could train. If you can't train and put in the hard yards in this sport anymore, you're not going to get far. Not at least to the point where maybe you have a chance against a top player. From experience, luckily I'm a guy that likes to work out and gets in the best shape that I can possibly can, my body allowing. Right now I feel pretty good, as good as I have in a long time.”
How to play from the baseline
The expression “to endure the rally” is about those indeterminate moments of a rally where none of the players is leading.
The ability to endure the rally is fundamental when you play a “long rally”, because it offers you the chance to measure your opponent’s strong points and vulnerabilities, besides letting you position as best as possible for your next offensive shot.