by Kate Flory
There’s no easy road back when you’re 33 and starting the season ranked inside the Top 200, but former World No. 2 Tommy Haas is determined to enjoy the time he has left competing.
For a player with as much unfulfilled potential as Tommy Haas, one might well expect a degree of bitterness and frustration to run through his reflections on his tennis career. But the personality of Haas leads to a renewed sense of enthusiasm as he hopes to test himself against the game’s best, in what may well be his final hurrah on the ATP World Tour. There is a dogged determination to show the tennis world, one final time, just what he can do with a racquet and ball.
His game delights tennis purists. A mix of slice and topspin on the backhand side and an aggressive style that sees him follow in a first serve to the net. “I believe that Tommy has the type of game, that on any given day, he can beat the best of the lot,” declared Nick Bollettieri. “He plays offensive, he comes in, has a great slice, a big forehand, he volleys a lot.” But 16 years on tour has seen that aggressive style chip away at Haas’ body.
As he starts the 2012 ATP World Tour season, ranked World No. 205, he admits he is still not fully fit, and likely never will be after a career blighted by a succession of injuries. But it’s certainly not a scenario that’s going to trouble the man who underwent right shoulder surgery for the third time in November 2007, only to beatNovak Djokovic en route to the 2009 Wimbledon semi-finals (l. to Federer).
"I don’t really have any ranking goals any more," Haas explained to DEUCE at the Brisbane International. “I’ve been out of it once before after my shoulder surgery; I was out for 15 months. I actually came back to the Top 10 and that was a goal of mine back then. Now it’s really not. Now it’s just trying to win another title and continue to play as long as I can without having too much pain. That’s really all it is.
"I just want to enjoy that moment of going out on the court, in front of a crowd, and have that feeling of a little pressure and wanting to win. It’s a special feeling that I don’t have in any other part of my life really. Going on the court and trying to win or trying to do well in certain situations is a feeling you can’t get any other way. It’s quite a privilege to have that feeling."
"Tommy has the type of game, that on any given day, he can beat the best of the lot."
Haas couldn’t have picked a more challenging era in which to mount a comeback. Just when the tennis world was accepting that Roger Federer andRafael Nadal would occupy the top two spots for the foreseeable future, along came Novak Djokovic to blast aside everyone in his path in 2011. “I don’t know if we’ve ever seen so many players at such a high level, that they can win any tournament at any given time,” noted Haas. “It’s a pretty special time right now in tennis.”
Far from serving as a de-motivator, though, the German is eager to add to the 12 ATP World Tour trophies that already adorn his cabinet, not to mention his four Grand Slam semi-final appearances – three of which came at the Australian Open. He is not ruling himself out from causing an upset somewhere down the track.
"That’s the beauty of the sport, you just never know," he said. "There’s always room for upsets, who knows what can happen? You obviously have to tip your hat to the top four guys in the world right now that have dominated the game for many, many years. This is why I’m still competing, why I’m out there, to maybe get the chance to play one of the top guys again somewhere and just see where my game’s at and just enjoy it and let it go."
Philipp Petzschner, a Davis Cup teammate and potential doubles partner at the London Olympics this summer, believes Haas still has the game to trouble the best. “He can definitely [be a threat at a Grand Slam]. He’s a great player. Three times I think he made it up to the Top 10 after injuries. He was World No. 2. He is a great, great tennis player and if he stays healthy he can be a threat to anybody out there.”
"If he stays healthy…" That’s the key according to Nick Bollettieri, who points out that, without movement, you have nothing in the modern game. "Tommy’s adamant he can do it," explained the renowned tennis coach, who first took Haas under his wing, at his Florida academy, when the German was just 11 years old. "He will not take no for an answer. He goes in the gym, puts in the time and effort. He’s got beautiful techniques. But it’s all going to depend on the injuries.
"To beat that top four, you’ve got to be healthy. You can’t have your hip or shoulder bothering you. Cardio – he’s as fit as anything. But only the Lord knows if that shoulder will hold up, that’s the big thing. But being a German, they always think they can conquer the world anyway!"
"I keep coming back and showing that I have the game to be dangerous and beat anybody."
There aren’t many players unluckier than Haas, who has had to deal with countless adversity on and off the court throughout his career. A quick developer, he created waves in 1997, when he was the youngest player, at 19 years old, to finish in the Top 50 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings. A year later, in 1998, he announced himself on the major stage when he defeated one of his tennis idols, Andre Agassi, in theWimbledon second round.
By 2002 he was firmly established among the game’s elite. Having reached the Australian Open semi-finals at the start of the season (l. to Safin), he rose to a career-high World No. 2 on 13 May.
However, just as he seemed set to challenge Lleyton Hewitt at the top of the South African Airways ATP Rankings, disaster struck. On 8 June, Haas’ parents were involved in a motorcycle crash that left his father in a coma. The German missed six weeks on tour to look after his parents, and, in what was a second half of the year to forget, he went under the surgeon’s knife for treatment to his right rotator cuff in December.
It was to be an injury that has persistently troubled Haas throughout his career. He missed the entire 2003 season due to more surgery, and went under the knife for the third time in November 2007. Haas sprained his ankle by stepping on a ball in the warm-up for his Wimbledon first-round match with Janko Tipsarevic, in June 2005, and, in February 2010, he underwent season-ending right hip surgery.
While many would have, quite legitimately, thrown in the towel, Haas’ love for the game has never wavered and he has never stopped trying to make the best of his career. It is the quality he believes to be his greatest strength. “I’ve had to deal with a lot of problems physically,” he acknowledged. “But I keep coming back and showing that I have the game to be dangerous and beat anybody. It’s a privilege to know that I have that.
"That’s been the most challenging thing, sticking with it and staying with it, especially when you’re injured. You don’t know where you’re at after surgery. It’s brutal for a player, especially with the shoulders or the hips. So that’s very challenging and difficult to deal with at times, but it’s not going to stop me from trying, or change my mindset, or change the beauty of me enjoying my life."
And enjoy life Haas does.Married to actress Sara Foster and father to 14-month-old daughter Valentina, Haas’ focus now is split between his tennis and his young family, whom he took skiing in Montana during the off-season. It is a balance that leaves him in a very contented state of mind.
"You can always look back and see things that you would have done differently," said the German. "Unfortunately, I had some injuries that were quite severe and you wonder why you were the one getting them. You have to be thankful for what you got and just be positive about it. I do love the game. I always wanted to reach a [Grand Slam] final, maybe win one, but that unfortunately didn’t happen and maybe it will never be. But I’ve had a lot of success. I’m very proud of lots of moments."
"I don’t think Tommy will have any regrets about how he performed when he was healthy."
Haas’ philosophy embraces the notion that you are a long time retired, and with the support of his family, his burning desire is to not waste a single moment he has left competing in the upper echelons of world tennis. “I’ve been on the tour now since ‘96, so who knows if this is my last year? I hope not, but if it is I just want to enjoy every single tournament I play,” said Haas. “I have enough time to focus on being healthy once I really say I’m done playing competitive tennis.”
"Tommy’s a special person," said Bollettieri. "He’s gone through a lot of adversity. What I want to bring out in this story is that he’s a guy who keeps on trying.
"I would say, if Tommy leaves the game, being married now, having a daughter, will offset any negative feelings. Will he say, ‘It’s not fair, that my dad almost got killed. It’s not fair that I was No. 2 in the world and had an injury. It’s not fair…’? Look at Monica Seles…she could have been rolling on. These are the facts of life. I don’t think Tommy will have any regrets about how he performed when he was healthy. He’s a role model."
One thing is for certain, when Haas does eventually hang up his racquets, it will be with no regrets, and a smile on his face.