Of Comebacks Verbal and On-Court: A Talk with Tommy Haas
The views of Tommy Haas, fashion consultant, are unequivocal: skin is in. "Those long pants are nasty, I think," he said, referring to the capri-style shorts worn by Rafael Nadal and Feliciano Lopez at the Australian Open. "I wouldn't play with them if you paid me."
Not that Haas opposes players showing some originality in their on-court attire. It's just that he would push the envelope in a different direction. "I think sometimes, we should be allowed to play without a shirt. You know -- if it's 100 degrees outside in Key Biscayne, for instance, why not?"
At the 2002 US Open, Haas tried becoming the first ATP player to wear a sleeveless shirt during a match. It didn't happen -- officials forced him to change because clothing sponsor Nike had not submitted the shirt for prior approval -- but the incident generated enough publicity to make sure the look was authorized by the time the Australian Open rolled around. Unfortunately for Haas, a serious shoulder injury kept him out of the event, and it was James Blake who earned the debatable distinction of sporting the first bare biceps in men's competition.
Reflecting momentarily on the topic in San Jose last month, he denied that the course of sartorial events irked him. "It's fine," he shrugged. "I play sleeveless with the company that I'm with now.
"It was just a statement that I think we should be able to play in whatever we want on the men's tour. If you look at some of the stuff Serena and the women players are wearing, you know -- hey, we wanna play sleeveless. In a lot of other sports you can, why not?"
The outlook for Tommy Haas, tennis player, is less clear cut. Can he re-attain the No. 2 ranking he held in May 2002 or improve on his Grand Slam record of two semifinals, achieved at the Australian Open in 1999 and 2002? In this context, 'why not?' has a sobering number of answers.
His 2002 trip to the Australian Open semifinals at 23 had been accompanied by twinges of pain in the right shoulder, a problem which continued to flare up as the season progressed. By the time he arrived in Indianapolis in mid-August, Haas was frustrated by a series of inconclusive MRIs. "I'm sick and tired of doing that. It would be the fourth one in the last couple of weeks," he said at the time. "Some days I have good days and sometimes it starts to hurt really bad again. After a while, it starts to be a pain in the butt... I need to take a break and at the same time I need matches."
The problem was eventually diagnosed as a torn tendon in his right shoulder. Till then, however, Haas believed that the tendon was merely inflamed, leading him to try and play through the pain. But as the wear and tear of the season accumulated, his form inevitably trailed off. His loss to Pete Sampras in the fourth round of the US Open would be his last significant result for a year and a half. Returning to defend the Masters Series title he had won in Stuttgart the previous year, he retired in his opening match at the event's new location in Madrid.
As late as the middle of December, Haas continued to try and tough things out. "I took off the last four weeks, but that wasn't the best way for my injury to go away," he said during his off-season training period in Florida. "I actually have to work through it."
Within a week, it became clear that all he was working his way though was his troubled shoulder. After feeling a "little pop in the shoulder" during a practice serve, Haas flew to New York to see a specialist, this time learning that the tendon was 95 percent torn. On December 20, he went under the knife.
By this time, the damage was so severe that two separate operations were eventually required to fix it: rotator cuff surgery to repair the tendon, and another arthroscopic procedure six months later to remove the scar tissue that had subsequently built up in the joint. The estimated six-month recovery period became fifteen months.
Haas started 2004 from scratch. With no official ATP ranking, he initially relied on wildcards and a protected ranking of 11 to get into tournaments. By the end of the season, he had climbed to No. 17 -- a resurgence that made him the comeback player of the year in most people's books. "I didn't even know that," he said. Marking the first anniversary of his "second career" in San Jose, Haas seemed pleased with the comeback tag. "It's good. After being away for 15 months, starting off actually here, my first tournament, I was struggling quite a bit. Also [the next week in] Memphis, I didn't know where my game was.
"Then coming back to finish 17 in the world at the end of the year is something I wouldn't have expected. My goal was to come back inside the top 100, so it was obviously a good year for me."
A comeback is made up of two parts -- where a player has come back to, but also where he has come back from. For Haas, the former is significant enough on its own: a year-end finish at No. 17, title wins in Houston and Los Angeles, and a US Open quarterfinal. But the preceding lows give it added resonance.
Things had looked promising as Haas turned 24 in the spring of 2002. He had won four titles the previous year, started the season by reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open for the second time, and was about to embark on his best run on the red clay of Europe. In addition, he had just bought his first house, in Sarasota, Fla., and reunited with former Bolletieri coach David "Red" Ayme in mid-2001 after a brief period of frequent coaching changes. A niggling shoulder injury was one of the few blots on the landscape.
And then, a plunge.
The injury troubles were jolted into perspective when his parents were involved in a serious motorcycle accident in Florida during the second week of Roland Garros. It left his father, Peter, in a coma for three weeks and mother, Brigitte, with a badly-injured right arm. Hearing his girlfriend sobbing out the news on the phone, Haas flew to Florida for the next two months. Concern and support from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Peter Haas' former schoolmate, was one of the few publicly-noted features of this period.
Both parents recovered fairly well, though Peter continued to have trouble with his leg and Brigitte with her arm. Haas, meanwhile, succumbed to his own physical troubles, more prosaic though they were. His time off was spent rehabbing, playing various sports to stay in shape and develop new skills, and catching up on lost leisure time.
A few months into his return in May 2004, Haas found his own life in danger when fire broke out at the players' hotel in Rome. Having taken sleeping tablets the night before, he slept on as the fire spread and people evacuated the hotel. At 5:30 am, Haas received a phone call from Ayme.
"I opened the door and... just saw thick smoke," he told a German newspaper two days later. "An old couple were gasping for air and there was panic everywhere... I used my t-shirt to cover my mouth and ran through the fire exit. I really feared for my life.
"I had a lot of luck. If my coach had rang me ten minutes later there is a good chance I would be dead."
He .subsequently lost a third-set tiebreak to Ivo Karlovic in the first round of the event, but could afford to be sanguine. Overall, given the events of recent years, a return to the Top 15 can alone be judged an unqualified success.
That Top 15 spot was finally achieved last week, thanks to semifinal showings in San Jose and Memphis in February. But it remains doubtful if he can continue to climb the mountain all the way back to his previous high of No. 2 -- a far loftier peak these days, given the currently formidable form of Roger Federer, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Marat Safin. Haas also faces competition from younger players trying to make their own comebacks -- .Guillermo Coria, David Nalbandian, Juan Carlos Ferrero.
But his largest obstacle may be his own body. A decent stretch of play without injury has been rare of late, and his results have dipped slightly. "That seems like a long time ago," he said of his run in Los Angeles, where he defeated Andre Agassi and a red-hot Nicholas Kiefer to claim the title. "I had a good summer. Throughout the whole summer circuit season, starting in LA, winning there, and leading up to the US Open, I played some great tennis...
"Then you go to the indoor season and then you have some time off to train. A few injuries that you always have to deal with, obviously."
The new year brought fresh injuries. "At the beginning of the year, I started off pretty well at the Hopman Cup, [but] got .injured there, which threw me back a little bit. [It] really hurt me in the end, in my second round match against Karol Beck."
He lost to Beck after holding a two-set lead. "That... took a few days, if not weeks, to get over," he said.
In San Jose, he began to experience muscle pain in his lower back. By the time he met Roddick in the semifinals, Haas was barely cracking 110 mph with his serve. The problem continued in Memphis the following week, probably contributing to a straight-sets semifinal loss to Max Mirnyi, who had never beaten Haas in seven previous meetings. Haas then withdrew from Scottsdale, where he was scheduled to be the top seed.
He next heads into a Davis Cup tie against South Africa. Germany's recent struggles in the competition have troubled Haas. "Roger Federer winning Wimbledon was not a surprise; Andy Roddick winning the U.S. Open was not a surprise, but Germany going to the second division was the biggest surprise and disappointment of my time away," he told a US paper last year.
The German team has frequently been unable to put together a full-strength team in recent years, losing World Group play-off in each of the last two seasons. Fluctuating form has been part of the reason. Last year, Nicholas Kiefer pointed out the alternating fortunes of the three best Germans over the past few years: Kiefer became No. 4 in the world before falling prey to a stress fracture in his right wrist; Haas rose soon after and fell just as Rainer Schüttler began his ascendancy with a run to the 2003 Australian Open final.
Asked to reflect on Kiefer's observation, Haas was placid. "Everybody has their time when they peak and play well," he said. "I was at my peak and then I had shoulder surgery, which was a little frustrating. Keifer had his peak back in 1999 and Schüttler ... every player has some ups and downs.
"There are only some players who really stay at a top level for a long time. And those are usually the people who play great tennis all the time, indoors and out, and are usually injury-free. I think we all -- especially Kiefer and I -- had to struggle with a few injuries here and there, so that set us back a little. Overall I think we're all doing a lot."
If nothing else, there seems to be a little more espirit de corps among the German team these days. "There is definitely the team spirit there," said Schüttler at a recent tie. "I have a good relationship with Tommy and Nicolas. With Nicolas I played juniors together, with Tommy I met him a couple of years later but we are good friends [the two also roomed together at the Olympics]. I think the team spirit is there but the whole team has to play together for not just one or two matches, but for three or four years, and then I think it's just a matter of time before we're successful."
The last time there were reports of friction, they concerned Boris Becker potentially returning to a Davis Cup role. Haas dismissed the claims. "Me, I would be very happy," he said. "I have a great relationship with Becker and I wouldn't ever have a problem
"I was sad when he left a couple of years ago, but he had a lot of other problems to worry about," he added, without a hint of mischief. "If somebody would have had problems back then it would have been Kiefer, but it's all in the past."
Davis Cup may be a priority for Haas, but being the No. 1 player in Germany is neither a concern nor a source of pressure. "If you look back for the last six, seven years, I've always been probably 1 or 2 in Germany, but it's nothing really that interests me," he said. "I look at my ranking, I look at what I've achieved.
"Davis Cup is obviously important, so every time you make a Davis Cup team, you're the one trying to play great tennis for Germany. It doesn't matter if you're two, three or four."
If Haas is indeed unable to eventually reach the heights once predicted for him -- vying for Slam titles, being regularly competitive with the best in world -- can that philosophy still apply? To enjoy trying to play "great tennis" without worrying "if you're two, three our four" -- or fifteen?
To be content to play a stylish, effective game and hit one of the better one-handed backhands on the tour. To continue to be a name which no player particularly wants to see in the slot beside his own.
To that, the answer may be simpler.