Tennis Opinions

Everything’s Eventual: The Curtain Falls on Tommy Haas’ Slow March to Retirement

“That’s sort of my new life when I’m home in LA, which I don’t mind…It’s fun,” says Tommy Haas of his easeful routine outside the realm of the professional tennis circuit, which features him ferrying his eldest daughter, Valentina, to and from school, and when he’s feeling adventurous, the odd ski trip. To all appearances, there is nothing particularly unusual about how the (semi-) retired life is treating Haas. Still, the story of his comfortingly quotidian off-court existence obscures the travails he went through to extend his playing days.

After freezing 2002 to come to terms with his parents’ brush with death in a motorcycle accident, Haas was robbed of 2003, and various other chunks of his prime, by injury. During his twilight years, the injuries multiplied; so too, did the visits to the operating theatre. In all, the German recovered from no fewer than nine surgeries throughout his career, the most recent of which he underwent in April 2016. It is a small miracle that Haas survived 22 years in his profession.

Speaking to the Californian media earlier this month, Haas made a close approximation to a retirement announcement by describing his ousting of Roger Federer from the ATP 250 tournament in Stuttgart last June as the “last match that I won on tour.”

Haas’ words amount to an admission that the singles portion of his career has drawn to a close, though, according to one source, he plans to shift his official retirement date back to accommodate an extra helping of doubles play. Delaying the inevitable end for at least another few months would put Haas in good company: this April, he’ll be eligible to join the ATP club of active quadragenarians, which is peopled with august doubles specialists like Leander Paes and Daniel Nestor. That is some goal to aim for.

Rehabilitation from operations to his right shoulder, and a ligament in his right foot, restricted Haas to a part-time playing schedule from 2014 to mid-2017. During that period, he teetered on the verge of losing the protracted battle to keep his career alive, inspired to plough on by a wish for seven-year-old Valentina to “watch me (her father) a few times as my tennis career comes to an end,” as well as a mulish determination to exit the singles tour on his terms.

On both counts, Haas attained what he had envisaged. But what about in the general context of his career? Did Haas get as far as he could have in his beloved sport, as one of many wildly talented ball strikers who seldom enjoyed a clean bill of health?

Yes and no. Haas can undoubtedly be counted as unlucky that his advancement to the loftiest peaks of success was hindered by rotten luck. The capture of a silver medal at the 2000 Olympic games, semi-final runs at the Australian Open in 1999 and 2002, and ascent to world No.2 sixteen years ago signalized Haas’ potential to take the tour by storm. Against the backdrop of his once soaring prospects, the tragedy affecting his parents, and the injuries he sustained shortly afterwards, could not have come at a worse time.

Nevertheless, for the period that he was able to play at his best level consistently, Haas operated on the margins of greatness, always lacking what it takes to make a lasting mark on tennis history. That period, however brief, coincided with a transitional era: the interregnum between the sunset of the Sampras empire and Federer’s preliminary steps towards building a significant legacy of his own.

The first three years of the 21st century was a ripe time to win a maiden slam—a feat managed by Thomas Johansson, Marat Safin, and Lleyton Hewitt (he won two). To what degree Haas’s failure to follow suit can be ascribed to bad fortune, or him faltering in the moments that mattered most, is an open question.

Scattered across the closing decade of Haas’ career were memorable matches against Federer and Novak Djokovic. Beginning in chronological order, Haas threatened to throw a spanner in the works of Federer’s bid to win a Career Grand Slam at Roland Garros in 2009, taking the first two sets of their round four encounter on his way to losing in five to the then French-Open-title-less Swiss.

Weeks later, Haas edged past Djokovic to claim victory at the Gerry Weber Open. In the quarter-finals of Wimbledon that same year, Haas instructed Djokovic in the art of all-court guile, springing a 7-5, 7-6(6), 4-6, 6-3 upset on the 4th seed. Then, in 2012, Halle was again the scene of a Haas triumph; the conquered foe in this instance, Federer. The following year, Haas switched his attention back to tormenting Djokovic. His straight-sets win at the 2013 Miami Open holds up as the most recent of any kind recorded against Djokovic—the six-time champion—at the second leg of the Sunshine Swing.

And that brings us full circle, to the sight of Haas defeating Federer at the MercedesCup, at which any fan of the sport would struggle to suppress a pang of wistfulness. Performing as a masterful strategist from the baseline and a vulpine wizard at net, Haas left as a parting gift to tennis a three-set snapshot of his effortless bravura.

The win he calls his last was as much a showcase of two of the most astute tacticians—and of course, technically sound practitioners of the single-handed backhand—to have graced the game as it was a glimpse of a tantalizing rivalry that never germinated. Each of Haas’ final five matches—losses to Mischa Zverev, Bernard Tomic, Ruben Bemelmans, Facundo Bagnis, and compatriot Jan-Lennard Struff—paled in comparison.

In 2016, Haas took on additional responsibility as Indian Wells tournament director, a position he was handpicked for by a loyal friend, and billionaire business magnate, Larry Ellison. Even while Haas busies himself with the multifarious duties his newest gig entails, he allocates some of his time to other endeavours (besides skiing and playing chauffeur).

Haas is terrifically well-credentialed for coaching, which he tried his hand at in January, working with Lucas Pouille on a consultation basis. Although the collaboration didn’t go so well—Pouille’s perennial Australian Open curse struck as a four-set defeat to the aforementioned Bemelmans—my belief remains undimmed that Haas has the tennis acumen to nurture an unpolished diamond into a Hall of Famer. If his name isn’t ever to be enshrined among those of the legends, the next best thing he could do is mentor one instead.

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