Haas starts to hush critics

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - German hopeful Tommy Haas may finally be hitting his stride, having claimed back-to-back titles and soared into the world's Top 10.

Haas was supposed to be the "next Boris Becker" as he climbed the world rankings in the late 1990's, but the tennis prodigy hit the wall last year, leaving skeptics to speculate that the young German may have already peaked in his early 20's.

But Haas is currently enjoying a breakthrough season on the ATP tour, having claimed four of his five career titles this year, including back-to-back championships in Vienna and Stuttgart -- with the latter being a lucrative Tennis Masters Series event.

Haas didn't exactly face the "who's who" of tennis en route to his title in Vienna, having not encountered a Top-20 player amid his run, but Stuttgart was another story altogether, as the athletic star was forced to stop a pair of world-class performers, including the white-hot Lleyton Hewitt. Haas upended Tim Henman to reach the semis in Stuttgart, and then found himself facing Hewitt on Saturday. All Hewitt had done was win his last 17 matches -- including titles at the U.S. Open and Tokyo -- to help establish himself as perhaps the best player of 2001.

But nobody told Haas.

Tommy Haas
Tommy Haas currently finds himself at No. 7 in the world, and appears well on his way to reaching his first-ever Tennis Masters Cup.
The 6-foot-2 German held off his Aussie counterpart in three sets, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, to reach his fourth final of the year, and you don't want to face Haas in a final in 2001, as he is now a perfect 4-0 in such encounters following his 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 straight-set dismantling of "The Beast," Max Mirnyi, in the Stuttgart championship affair.

Mirnyi entered the battle pretty red-hot himself, having stunned world No. 1 and French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten, Wimbledon titlist Goran Ivanisevic, the legendary Pete Sampras, and former world No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov over the first five rounds. So he was ready...just not ready enough, as Haas bombarded the big Belarusian with perhaps the best performance of his young career.

Haas improved to a solid 54-19 this season, including the four titles and 10 straight match victories. He entered 2001 with just one career title, which came in Memphis in 1999, his previous best season on tour.

His prowess in Stuttgart gave the German his first career TMS crown.

"This was my nicest victory because I like playing in Germany," Haas said after throttling an unsuspecting Mirnyi. "I really wanted to play well before a home crowd."

Both Haas and Mirnyi are products of Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy in Florida and are good friends, but the German has shown no mercy on his fellow European, sweeping all four career matchups to this point.

Haas closed out 1999 ranked a career-high No. 11 in the world, but by the end of the 2000 campaign, the German slumped to No. 23, giving his critics plenty of fuel for the fire.

No one has ever questioned Haas' ability, as he possesses a big serve, a nice return game, has plenty of speed to cover the court, and has arguably the best one-handed backhand in the men's game.

Most, however, have wondered whether or not he had the desire/hunger/mind set/whatever you want to call it to compete with the big boys. He's certainly been no stranger to on-court lapses, suspect shot selection and temper tantrums during his travels.

But 2001 has seen the 23-year-old blossom into a serious contender for the world tennis throne.

He currently finds himself at No. 7 in the world, and appears well on his way to reaching his first-ever Tennis Masters Cup -- which will be staged in Sydney next month. The prestigious event invites only the world's Top-8 players, and, obviously, No. 7 would qualify. Haas hopes to join the likes of Kuerten, Hewitt, Andre Agassi, Pat Rafter and Juan Carlos Ferrero Down Under.

Haas headed to Stuttgart ranked 12th in the world, but by week's end, he appeared unbeatable in the southwest region of his homeland.

In running the table at the TMS event, Haas became the first German to win it all in Stuttgart since the iconic Becker turned the trick in 1996.

The Hamburg-native Haas, who resides in sunny Bradenton, Florida, is also piling up the cash this year, having already pocketed over $1 million in prize money. His career earnings are now in excess of $4 million, thanks to a $434,000 paycheck in Stuttgart.

Way to go, Tom.

Haas opened his 2001 season by raising a trophy in Adelaide -- an Australian Open tune-up -- where the formidable Hewitt, the event's 2000 champion, was among the German's victims en route to the title.

The six-year-pro Haas and Hewitt are no strangers to each other this season, having met no less than six times already, and splitting the matchups in half. Haas was among Hewitt's victims at the U.S. Open, where the Aussie secured his first-ever "major" victory. Hewitt also stopped Haas at the year's first Grand Slam event -- the Aussie Open.

Haas, who is trying to give a proud German nation its first bona fide tennis star since Becker and Steffi Graf hung up their racquets, came into this season with a dismal 1-8 championship match record, which shows you why many experts felt he didn't have what it takes (guts) to reach the sport's hierarchy.

He's been part of the ATP's "New Balls Please" campaign, but had been failing to produce...until now.

One thing German tennis fans are proud of is Haas' brilliant singles record in Davis Cup play, which included an unblemished 2-0 mark this year. At 11-1, Haas boasts the best singles match winning percentage in Davis Cup competition among active players (based on a minimum of 10 matches played). You can look it up.

Haas does, however, need to improve upon his showings at the Slams, where he has yet to get past the fourth round at any of the showcase events. He was gone by the second round of the first three Slams this season before finally breaking through for a fourth-round showing at the U.S. Open, where he ran into a buzzsaw in the form of Hewitt.

We'll see what Tommy has at the 2002 Australian Open in a few months.

What he does have is the personality and looks to become a German superstar, and if the "New Balls" continue to bounce his way, the sky could be the limit for one Thomas Mario Haas.

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