It wasn’t scorching hot in Key Biscayne, Florida, at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, when Robin Haase took the court for his Miami Open first-round match against Yuichi Sugita. Yet, this main-draw opener on the Grandstand at the Crandon Park Tennis Center burned very deeply late in the second set.
The flames of furious ferocity built inside Robin Haase’s body and mind as the second set unfolded. Though up one set to love, Haase gesticulated constantly in the second stanza. Exasperated in game one of the set and frustrated by a lucky netcord in game six, Haase clearly didn’t inhabit what one would call a “comfort zone.” Yet, if he was merely impatient or dissatisfied through the first six games of the set, he reached an entirely different level of inner turmoil in the final two games of the set. Distracted by someone in the crowd to the point that Haase flashed a sarcastic thumbs-up signal on multiple occasions, a severely bothered Haase flubbed routine waist-level volleys to cede a break to Sugita for a 5-3 deficit, and then the set one game later.
Haase’s first serve vanished, the depth on his groundstrokes was nowhere to be found, and Sugita — who knocked Jack Sock out of the 2018 Australian Open in round one and made noticeable forward strides on tour in 2017 — methodically took advantage with bigger, flatter hitting to the corners of the court.
Haase was presented with a double challenge: Handling Sugita’s consistent hitting, and taming the fire within. Sugita was certainly the better player in the second set, but it was hard to ignore the idea that Haase — who won four of the first five games of the match — had wandered off the reservation. The Dutchman’s biggest opponent entering the third set was not the man standing across the net; it was the man he looks at in the mirror each morning.
Ask tennis fans about Robin Haase, and the first thing they might say is “Ha-Ha-Haase.” A more eloquent version of that response: Alas, what might have been. Haase — when locked in — owns an aggressive, flowing game with clean strokes. He is much more than a serve. He isn’t timid in his shot selection. He has long possessed the ability to become a threat. Yet, as his losses to Andy Murray at the 2011 U.S. Open and to Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2010 show, Haase often has a problem finishing what he starts. He is one of many tennis players with a pronounced penchant for running four-fifths of a race but lacking either the fuel or focus (sometimes both) for a finishing kick.
In the past 12 months, however, Haase has shown that at age 30, it’s not too late to improve, a theme common among a number of ATP players 28 and older. (I call it “The Wawrinka Effect,” inspired by Stan’s rise to prominence after drifting through his early and mid-20s.) Haase hasn’t been spectacular the way some of his similarly-aged peers have been, but he has sustained form better than he used to. He made a Masters semifinal in Montreal. He won two matches at the Bercy Masters. Haase had never previously won at least two matches at two separate M-1000 events in the same calendar year. Heading into 2017, Haase had won at least two matches at the same Masters event only twice in his career. His 2017 season therefore doubled his total.
Haase — whose injury slowed him down in the third set of the Rotterdam quarterfinals against Roger Federer, in the match which elevated the Swiss back to World No. 1 — was unable to compete in Indian Wells. This Miami match against Sugita therefore represented his 2018 Masters debut. The beginning of the third set marked a fork-in-the-road moment for the veteran: Pick up where he left off — from the Bercy Masters and from his quality performance against Federer a month ago in Rotterdam — or lose ground and recall the demons which have followed him far too long?
Haase’s answer to that question was decisive. He attained greater depth on his groundstrokes and stopped playing the hesitant tennis which marked the second set. He ran through the third set in under half an hour, 6-1. He earned a date with Juan Martin del Potro in the round of 64.
He will get a chance to win two matches at the same Masters event.
Robin Haase’s career isn’t soaring. That would be an excessive and hyperbolic view of where he stands. Yet, it is certainly better than it was 12 months ago. This is not a career which is going down in flames.
Robin Haase — as shown on Wednesday in South Florida against Yuichi Sugita — is learning how to handle the heat.