As Rivals Come and Go, Tommy Haas Is Still Holding Court
At the French Open
in Paris recently, Tommy Haas
was deep into a fifth set with John Isner, and in Florida, Nick Bollettieri was yelling and cursing at the television.
“Do it Tommy, just stay calm and just run around in the middle of his serve, and do a god darn disco dance to throw him off, anything,” Bollettieri recalled saying. “I was actually trying to get to him inside the television. If I could have crawled in there with him, I would have.”
Bollettieri, 81, and Haas, 35, have traveled a long road together since 1989, when Haas first visited Bollettieri’s eponymous academy cum tennis factory in Bradenton, Florida.
Haas was 11 and did not speak English, but he was determined to live the international life of a tennis star after finding his muse at age 7, when his fellow German Boris Becker
won Wimbledon in 1985.
“There was a huge shock reaction in Germany,” Haas said. “Boris became my idol, and I said to my parents, to my dad: ‘I want to become a professional tennis player. There is no question in my mind that is what I want to do.”’
Most 7-year-old obsessions fade, but Haas’s never did. He left Germany at 14 to board at Bollettieri’s academy, fighting through homesickness and eventually moving out of the dormitory and into Bollettieri’s own house. “He’s like a son to me,” Bollettieri said.
Haas almost lost his own parents in a motorcycle accident in 2002. He has lost years of his tennis career to injuries and lost Grand Slam semifinals he was in position to win. But he has somehow — despite all the childhood sacrifices and adulthood setbacks — never lost his passion for the game, for the feel of the ball coming off his strings and the primal buzz of trying to impose his will and his true all-court game on the increasingly younger men across the net.
So, at age 35, while so many of his former rivals and peers have moved on, Haas is still putting his ballcap on backward and competing with the best. This will be his 14th Wimbledon, and he comes into it seeded No.13, which he has long considered his lucky number.
“I’ve had a lot of great moments in my career, a lot of great matches I look back to that I’m really proud of playing,” Haas said. “I guess right now, in this moment, I’m just really proud of playing tennis at this level. I’m not just sort of hanging around and playing a few tournaments here and there and winning a few matches here and there. I’m playing tennis at a pretty high level, which, I’ll be honest, sometimes surprises me. And I’m really just proud of myself for that, that I got back to that level really not thinking a year and a half or even a year and a couple of months ago that this was possible again.”
Haas is not quite the oldest man in the Wimbledon singles draw. The French qualifier Marc Gicquel is 36, but Haas is the oldest man to still be a major factor. He reached the final in San Jose indoors in February, beat the world’s No.1 player, Novak Djokovic, in Miami in March on an outdoor hardcourt on his way to the semifinals, and won the title in Munich on clay in May. He then reached his first quarterfinal at the French Open after winning his third-round marathon with Isner, 10-8 in the fifth set on his 13th match point (that number again).
Last week, he reached the semifinals on grass in Halle, Germany, before losing in three sets to his good friend Roger Federer
“There’s something inside of him that is just stubborn,” Bollettieri said. “I think he looks at the world and thinks: ‘Son of a gun, I came so close. No.2 in the world and why me? Why all these injuries?’ I think there was some inner energy in Tommy that only a few people in life have. And I also believe that his daughter, their little girl, is driving him. He really wants his daughter someday to be able to say, ‘That was my daddy.”’
Haas, whose longtime partner is the American actress Sara Foster, does not contest the inspiration provided by their daughter, who will turn 3 in November and who just spent six weeks traveling with him and Foster in Europe. Haas does not contest his unusual inner drive, but he does reject the importance of the “Why me?” factor.
After hip and elbow surgery in 2010 kept him off tour for more than a year, this is his second comeback from major injury, or his third if you count the broken foot he had as a talented junior.
“I don’t have time for what ifs,” he said. “I don’t like to look back and ask myself what if, what if, what if? I just like to ask myself what can I do better? What can I change now? And then let’s go out there and do it, let’s still go after a few goals, a few dreams you still have and if you make it, great. And if not, also great. I’m still happy to be out here.”
All of this is not to imply that Haas is an ode to joy on a tennis court. He has a deeply ingrained negative streak, a tendency to gripe and snipe at his coaches and support team under pressure, and a propensity for finding fault with elements beyond his control.
“The question mark with Tommy was whether or not he could deal with the little adversities that took place in the match — the time outs, the rain, the guy taking too much time,” Bollettieri said. “It was never a question of whether or not he had the talent.”
Haas says he now feels calmer under duress and often looks it, too, but there is still a hard edge to his on-court demeanor and a self-critical urgency.
“It’s just what you are, the way I have been playing tennis when I was even 6, 7, 8 years old,” Haas said. “It’s the same thing. I can show you videos where I go crazy. Some people can sort of let go and change it, and some people have a tougher time with it. And I certainly am one of the guys who has a little bit of a tougher time with it.”
It is intriguing then, this increasingly deep connection with the 31-year-old Federer, a temperamental, racket-smashing player in his youth who came to personify string-picking cool in his prime. There were times in the mid-2000s when Haas voiced weariness with the cult of Federer and the constant tributes to the beauty of his game. But the two men have become genuinely close in recent years, in part because of the friendship between Foster and Federer’s wife, Mirka, and in part because of their own generational and psychological commonalities.
They switch easily between German and English with friends and each other and had dinner together as recently as Wednesday night in London after Haas hitched a ride in Federer’s private jet from Germany earlier in the week.
“He’s got two young daughters, and I have a young daughter,” Haas said. “We get along really well, and you sort of get into this sort of understanding like this could be a friendship for life. And it’s nice to have that. You don’t have that with many other players on tour.”
“It’s fun being close to someone like that,” Haas added. “Because he’s obviously in many ways one of the greatest athletes of all time in my eyes.”
Haas, who peaked at No.2 in 2002, clearly had the game and drive to be one of the greatest tennis players of this era. His body and the historically high quality of the opposition have decided otherwise. Despite his deep-rooted sense of destiny, he still has no Grand Slam title. But enduring excellence does not lie, and Haas has now been a force to be reckoned with in three decades. With his elegant one-handed backhand and free-flowing ability to inflict pain from all parts of the court, he also has been a purist’s delight. And, backwards cap aside, he remains a good fit with the throwback grass courts of the All England Club.
“Wimbledon 2013, seeded 13 — I like those numbers,” Haas said. “It’s pretty special just to even be part of this Wimbledon one more time.”