- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hours before 19-year-old Sloane Stephens took the court in search of a third straight Citi Open win, two grizzled veterans sought to prove that 34-year-old geezers can play tennis, too.

Tommy Haas overpowered qualifier Michael Russell 6-4, 6-2 at a stormy Rock Creek Park on Tuesday night, but the result is not nearly as important as those who decided it. At 34, Haas and Russell are two of the three oldest players in the ATP Top 100 rankings. Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo, who also won his first-round match Tuesday, is the third.

Five of the world’s top 10 men’s singles players are 26 or younger, displaying agility and endurance that many more experienced players often lack. But age isn’t the only factor.

“It’s really just a number,” Haas said. “You try to play your game as good as you can and maybe use some experience sometimes to your advantage.”

Haas and Russell have a combined 30 years of professional experience, and it certainly showed on the court. The match looked more like a game of chess than anything else, as well-placed, well-hit strokes dominated play and flashy shots were nowhere to be found.

Haas, the No. 36 player in the world, is still recovering from multiple surgeries that sidelined him for over 15 months between 2010 and 2011. Despite the soreness that often comes with old age, he hopes to play long enough for his 1-year-old daughter, Valentina, to appreciate his game.

“The mindset is still there,” he said. “I still get as nervous as I did 15 years ago, and I still want to win so much as 10 years ago. As long as I have that, it’s a good sign.”

Haas‘ world ranking would have automatically qualified him for the 2012 London Olympics, but the German Olympic Committee chose not to nominate him for the tournament. He continues to criticize their decision and is disappointed that he didn’t get a chance to return to the Olympics after missing the Beijing Games in 2008 due to health issues.

Russell, a native Texan, represents the opposite end of the veteran spectrum. While Haas has advanced to numerous Grand Slam finals and defeated Roger Federer in June, Russell has never made it past the fourth round at a Slam. He had to win two qualifying matches last weekend to simply earn the right to face Haas in the first place.

“When I had to play him, I knew it was going to be a match where I had to play my best tennis in order to beat him,” Haas said of his opponent. “He’s one of the hardest working players on the tour, and hard work pays off.”

Just north of the Stadium Court where Haas and Russell faced off, American Steve Johnson, 22, lost to Benjamin Becker in straight sets. Younger players like Johnson may be stronger and faster, Haas explained, but they also have weaknesses which older players like Becker, 31, can exploit.

“It’s a lot of a mind game,” he said. “When you play younger guys, you try to see if you can maybe annoy them on the court, where they maybe tilt a little bit.”

And annoy them Haas will, as long as he can manage to stay in the single’s draw. He’ll face 25-year-old Leonardo Mayer on Wednesday evening and continue to put his old age to good use.

“As long as my body holds up and I can keep staying fit, I’ll do it as long as I can,” he said.
“That’s the beauty of getting older: you keep challenging yourself.”

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