Tommy Haas: The man that might have been

RealSport look back at the career of former world #2 Tommy Haas who announced his retirement this week at the age of 39.

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(Photo credit: Carine06)

Germany’s Tommy Haas called time on his career this week in an on-court announcement following Roger Federer’s quarterfinal victory over Hyeon Chung. Haas, had by any reckoning, a fine career. He won 15 Tour-level titles, including one Masters series title in Stuttgart in 2001. He also made it to at least the quarterfinals at each of the four Slams and also made four semifinals, three in Melbourne and one at Wimbledon. He also won a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics, losing in the final to two-time Major champion Yevgeny Kalefnikov.

The original ‘Big Four’?

Yet, for all the German’s hugely impressive accomplishments, one cannot help but feel that he could have achieved so much more. Arriving in the game more or less alongside Roger Federer, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin, there was the basis there for a quadrumvirate that could have served as a precursor to the glories of the Big Four. There was certainly the talent. Safin’s power was more than a match for anyone, Hewitt’s style almost revolutionary, Haas and Federer were supremely watchable.

Both men were capable of silky, fluid tennis, attacking their opponents from all over the court, a barrage of variety that only the very best could withstand. Haas’ strength was his backhand, his weakness the forehand, making him almost a reverse image of Federer. But instead of a four-way battle for supremacy, following his 2003 Wimbledon triumph Federer was left to reign supreme for around half-a-decade until Rafael Nadal and then Novak Djokovic emerged to contest his mastery.

What had happened to Safin, Hewitt and Haas? The Russian managed two Slams in his career and a brief stint at world #1, but it was so much less than his talent warranted. But for all that ability, he lacked the drive required to consistently challenge at the top of the game. When he turned it on, as he did for a fortnight in New York in 2000 and then again five years later in Melbourne, no one, not even Federer could stop him.

But the bursts of magic became sparser and sparser and by 2009 the Russian had retired. Hewitt would continue to compete at the top in the early 2000’s. But the diminutive Australian, for all his undoubted fight, seemed increasingly ill-suited to the physicality of the sport. His two Slam wins in New York in 2000 and at Wimbledon a year later, seemed far away by the time he made his last trip to the last eight at a Slam in 2009. By the time he retired in 2016, respected though he was, relevant he was not.

There were others too. Andy Roddick was a perennial challenger to Federer at the Slams, losing four Major finals to the Swiss in the 2000’s, but was never able to add to his lone Slam which he won in New York in 2003. David Nalbandian was a finalist at Wimbledon in 2002 (lost to Hewitt) and made the semis at the other four Slams at least once. But for Haas, that most sublimely talented of players, the greatest triumphs seemed forever just out of reach.

A plague of injuries

The reason was not a lack of determination. That, the German had in spades. Nor was he mentally weak; he maintained throughout his long career a winning record in deciding sets. There were no obvious weaknesses in his game. He was still playing well enough in 2013 to defeat then world #1 Djokovic in Miami, going on to reach the semifinals and just last year upset Federer in Stuttgart.

His serve was always an asset, accurate and powerful and not prone to double faults. His backhand was powerful and versatile and his forehand was a dependable, if slightly workmanlike, shot. But what let Haas down time and time again over the course of his career was his body. He was absent for the entire 2003 season, just as his rivals began to assert themselves, and did not get back to his best until 2007. He then missed the first half of 2008 and was out injured for most of 2010 and 2011.

He also had to deal with problems off the court, notably his parents being involved in a serious accident in 2002, leaving his father in a coma which saw Haas take time away from the Tour. For all his quality, and indeed perseverance, which saw him return to the top 10 or achieve new landmarks time and time again after injury set backs, there can be no doubt that his repeated injury problems cost him his shot at the biggest titles.

Not only in the obvious sense in that he was forced to spend much of his career either on the sidelines or rebuilding his fitness and rhythm, but also because he was denied the opportunity to improve his game and gain invaluable experience. Players learn and improve from playing on Tour, from clashes with their rivals and unexpected upsets. Haas was denied so many of these opportunities that it is a small wonder he never managed to win a Slam.

A remarkable career

But even without the more tangible success of his contemporaries, Haas should look back at his career with enormous pride. Perhaps what summed him up best was when he reached the French Open quarterfinals for the first time at the age of 35 in 2013. That saw him complete the set at the four Majors, and came fourteen years after his first. He was defeated there by Djokovic, a man he had become the contemporary of despite turning professional nearly a decade before him.

In a sense, despite being viewed by many as amongst the greatest to never win a Slam, Haas overachieved. He may not have met his early career promise, but that was due to events beyond his control. After that, after injury after injury, the German kept coming back, and he kept winning. Indeed, he finished 2013 as the world’s 12th best player. 15 titles, an Olympic silver medal and 569 career match wins. 

Haas walked amongst giants of the game. He claimed wins over Sampras, Federer and Djokovic, unquestionably three of the greatest players of all time, and only Nadal of the current big five never tasted defeat at the hands of Haas. That 569th and final win came against none other than Federer, which seems right for a man who may not be remembered amongst the legends of the game, but will certainly be remembered by them.

What was your favourite Tommy Haas moment? Let us know in the comments below!

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