Third Time Lucky For Haas
by Alison Kim|
Tommy Haas has endured more professional setbacks than fathomable, but he still counts himself among the fortunate. Is the heart and resilience he displayed at Roland Garros and Wimbledon a sign that the best is yet to come for the German as he starts his ‘third career’ at 31 years of age?
An upset was brewing in Paris. The crowd at Stade Roland Garros had seen the surprising departures of undefeated four-time champion Rafael Nadal and World No. 4 Novak Djokovic just one day earlier, and now it seemed that German Tommy Haas stood in the way of Roger Federer and what many believed was his destiny.
Haas had coolly stolen the opening two sets from the Swiss, and now held a crucial break point chance at 4-3 – just five points away from handing Federer his earliest Grand Slam exit since 2004. With the anticipation at fever pitch, Federer went for broke, hitting a brilliantly delivered inside-out forehand that barely caught the line.
Call it skill, call it a lucky shot or call it destiny. Haas, who buys into the philosophy that everything happens for a reason, would say later: “At 5-3, two sets to love up, I would have liked my chances. We'll never find out. But good thing he had the belief. At the end of it, I'm happy that he won the whole tournament.”
As important as that victory would turn out to be for Federer, it also proved a significant moment in Haas’ career following an oft-difficult road back from his most recent shoulder surgery two years earlier. Similar to his first comeback in 2004, inspired by a title win over Andy Roddick at the US Men’s Clay Court Championship, this performance on his least favoured surface re-instilled his belief that he could compete with the best of them.
“I’ve been very lucky every time when I felt there might be a chance I don’t know if I’m going to come back, something happened in my tennis career where I felt I still got what it takes,” he says.
Lucky is rarely a term used to describe Haas, whose ill-fortunes have been well-chronicled: his parents’ frightening motorcycle accident at the height of his career, three shoulder surgeries leading to prolonged injury layoffs, and a ridiculous laundry list of maladies ranging from sprained ankles and torn stomach muscles to sinus infections and stomach viruses.
It’d be understandable – perhaps even expected – if Haas bemoaned his fate, but instead the German calmly says about the twists his career has taken: “It’s a part of life. I think bad luck is something way worse. Sure, I wish sometimes I didn’t have the shoulder problems and maybe I would have had more success, but at the same time, I don’t know if that would have been the case. I don’t look back and dwell on things like that. I take it as it comes and try to learn from it and see if I can come back stronger.”
With such a mentality, it’s almost unsurprising that the German possesses a remarkable phoenix-like ability to rise anew. Now, in the midst of what he considers his ‘third career’, the 31 year old has once again shown the talent, resilience and resolve that carried him into the Top 10 in the previous two chapters of his professional life.
The flashy and versatile German, a product of the Nick Bollettieri Academy, established himself as a Top 10 fixture during the 2001-02 seasons – reaching a career-high No. 2 behind Lleyton Hewitt in the South African Airways ATP Rankings – but two shoulder surgeries and 15 months later, he returned to the circuit unranked. Though doctors doubted his ability to recapture his old form, he surprised all the skeptics – not to mention himself – as he climbed to World No. 17 by the end of 2004.
All was going well for Haas in 2007 – he was back in the Top 10, had reached the semi-finals at the Australian Open and quarter-finals at the US Open, and had helped Germany to the Davis Cup semi-finals – when it all came crashing down. He underwent another shoulder surgery in November, and the reality of the situation stung even more this time around. “That kind of really put me down mentally for a while,” admits Haas. “Having to go through rehab again, not knowing if the shoulder was going to come back, was tough. That time I wasn’t 24, 25 anymore when I had the first shoulder surgery. I was 29, and it was tough to keep being thrown behind and having to come back.”
Though he returned to the circuit the following February, he saw mediocre results in his limited tournament appearances. And after playing his last event of the season at the US Open – a five-set loss to Gilles Muller in the second round – rumours surfaced that Haas was prepared to call it quits.
When he began the 2009 season, there were still a number of question marks for Haas as he felt a lack of direction without a support team in his corner. “The tournaments came around and I was travelling by myself,” says Haas, whose ranking dipped to No. 87 by March. “I just felt like I wasn’t prepared the way I needed to be and lost a lot of tight matches. I didn’t win the big points and my confidence kind of went down a little bit.”
With his fiancée, actress Sara Foster, he retreated to Turks and Caicos for a much-needed holiday. “I probably should have been practising,” he says, “but at the same time mentally I was a little bit tired and stressed because I wasn’t really performing the way I wanted to, and I wasn’t doing really the work I wanted to do because I didn’t have a team around me that I enjoyed being with and that pushed me. “
After five days in paradise, he came back refocused and recharged. He brought old coach Thomas Hogstedt – the wizard behind his latest revival – and new physio Alex Stober onto his team, and traded in the pristine Caribbean beaches for the training courts in Munich. “It was bad weather and tough,” remembers Hogstedt. “He likes the Florida sun. He really showed big heart there, the way he worked to come back.”
Hogstedt saw that while all the tools were still there, Haas lacked confidence in many parts of his game, including his strokes and technique. “He was not in shape to play tournaments,“ he says. They went back to the basics, doing drills Haas used to like when he played well, and worked on getting him back into better physical shape.
He put his form to a test at the Mutua Madrileña Madrid Open, but ranked too low for direct entry, he played the qualifying rounds for the first time since the 1996 US Open. Haas knew that others were surprised by the decision, but claimed: “I was fine with it. I just felt like at that time I wanted to play matches anyway... You get confidence by any matches you play. When you’re healthy and you enjoy the game of tennis, I don’t think you really care whether it’s a qualifying match or even a Challenger. You just have to go back to the roots.”
It was a successful showing for Haas, who went toe to toe with Andy Roddick in the second round – a match he should have won with two chances to close it out in the second set tie-break. Then over a whirlwind six week span came his breakthrough. Following Roland Garros, he claimed his first grass-court title at his home country tournament, the Gerry Weber Open in Halle, and achieved his best showing at Wimbledon, where he reached the semi-finals only to be halted by Federer. Djokovic, who fell victim to Haas at both stops, admitted afterwards: “I couldn't deal with his serve.”
Haas reflected on his rapid and fortuitous turnaround that placed him back in the Top 20: “It’s funny how it is. Life you just never know what to expect, just like with everything. As long as you have a good team, you believe in yourself and you train hard, a lot of things are possible.”
After coming so close to the pinnacle of the sport – a World No. 2 and four-time Grand Slam semi-finalist – it’s easy to consider the limitless possibilities in Haas’ future should health stay in his favour. And considering that the German wrote on his website last October that his body “hasn’t hit its peak yet”, it’s not unfathomable that his best tennis will come to a front during this ‘third career’.
“He still dreams of winning that Grand Slam,” Hogstedt says, “and now of course Wimbledon the semi-finals was very good for his game, but especially mentally for his motivation.”
Though Haas turned 31 years old this past April, his coach thinks his age – and accordingly experience – have made him a better player. “I think he is much smarter and wiser now,” says Hogstedt. Additionally, the injuries that inhibited his career earlier have had one positive result: “He missed so much time on injuries I think sometimes body-wise he’s like 25, a little bit the same as [Andre] Agassi.”
Fittingly, Agassi is the last player to have claimed a Grand Slam title after his 30th birthday, winning the Australian Open at 30 years of age in 2001 and recapturing the title two years later. In total, 10 different players have experienced Grand Slam glory aged 30 and over, including first-time winners Petr Korda and Andres Gimeno.
“In our generation, Agassi was obviously someone who gave us that hope that you can still play great tennis at 35, 36,” says Haas. “Age shouldn’t be a factor for us to slow down the game. If you’re injury free and you stay fit through your work, I don’t know why can’t play good tennis in your thirties.”
One can only hope that with all the challenges he’s had to endure that Haas will finally be given an injury-free slate to fully realise his potential. But come what may, it’s certain that Haas will continue to count himself among the lucky, with appreciation for the road taken to fulfill his lifelong ambition. “I look back and I don’t regret one thing,” he says. “Ever since I was six years old, I wanted to become a professional tennis player and I’m basically living my dream. I’m going to ride it as long as I can.”
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