A Hard Case

Thursday, March 15, 2007 /by

You don’t have to be a Beatles fan (I know, because I’m not one) to understand what I mean when I say that Tommy Haas is the Nowhere Man of pro tennis. All you have had to have done is follow the career of the former prodigy, who is now almost 29,  and the oldest member of the current Top 10. Let’s be frank about this: Haas has many detractors, both at this website and elsewhere.

Tommy2There’s this thing about being a little too good-looking (and perhaps being a little too aware of it), there’s this thing about the towel-fluff (Haas was once caught on camera bitterly complaining about the quality of the towels during a match), that SUV in Memphis that took up too much of a choice parking spot close to the door. . . You know what I mean. Some people think Haas is the Perfect Tennis Storm: the quintessential demanding, self-absorbed, imperious guy who radiates entitlement without having won jack – at least in Grand Slam tennis terms. For whatever reason, Haas seems to be one of those people who is easy to dislike, and I admit that a part of me always wants to like such people.

Besides, I know a slightly different Tommy Haas, and if that one isn’t necessarily a candidate for canonization, so be it. He is, after all, “just” a tennis player. To me, he’s like many of those beautiful young things who make up the International White Trash set. He was born into a certain class (in his case, World Class Tennis Pro), and blaming someone for his station in life always makes you a lesser person, even if it doesn’t make them a better or less grating one. But there’s even more to it than that, with Haas.

Tommy’s father, Peter, was a hard-charging, ambitious tennis parent. He financed Tommy’s tennis careers with a move that was extraordinary when it took place, about 25 years ago, during the heyday of McEnroe era: he sold shares in Tommy’s future, which in some ways made his boy a commodity. Tommy, who is German by birth, was a full-timer at the Nick Bollettieri by age 13, and he worked like a dog – okay, a puppy – on a game designed around his athleticism (the guy doesn’t run around the court, he bounces) and solid groundstrokes. He was a prodigy on the fast track to a level of stardom he never attained, and that can’t be fun. He climbed as high as No. 2 in May of 2002, but he’s never won a major. Okay, I’m getting a little depressed just typing this; shall I go on?

Tommy1In short, Tommy had many of the parts that go into being a top player, but somehow they never fit together quite well enough, at the right time, to make him a Grand Slam event winner. Sure, he’s one-dimensional, given to playing in the same gear (fourth) and lacking just that extra smidgen of power – and court sense – that would enable him to dominate opponents and win matches simply by following a game plan and executing at a sufficiently high-level. He can be a good fighter (he’s 17-6 in Davis Cup singles), but on some big occasions, when he needed to dial it up just one notch, he's turned the button the wrong way.

And did I mention that the guy has had four serious surgeries (one on his serving-arm rotator cuff), or that his parents were involved in a near fatal motorcycle crash?

So count me in with the crowd who’s happy to see Haas doing well in the autumn of his career. He’s a man made of tennis, by tennis, for tennis, and it’s a measure of his fidelity to the game that he never left Nick’s.

Bradenton is his official residence, and one day we might see him on a court there, leaning on an aluminum walker, with Nick rasping, That’s the way, Tommy boy! You gotta step into the court before you take that forehand! Okay, quick respirator break. Dude's a pretty boy, but a hard case.

Haas finished fairly strong last year, and I've had the feeling all along that this is a make-it or break-it year for him. So far, it’s been breaking in a making kind of way. Yesterday here at the Pacific Life Open, he pounded Fernando Gonzalez into raw meat, 6-3, 6-2. There were only a few reporters around for his presser, and it was a good one, worth reading in its entirety. Haas speaks so fast that at one point I swear I smelled burning wires and saw a wisp of smoke emanating from ASAP stenographer Jeannice Middaugh’s keyboard.

Which is to say, Tommy speaks a quickly as he plays. He is also frank. Recalling how he got waxed (through no fault of his own) by an on-fire Fernando Gonzalez in the semifinal of the Australian Open, Haas said:

You know, he was hitting 45 winners and I think three unforced errors the whole match (in Australia) . You're looking maybe to get to a Grand Slam final, which is a dream for every tennis player, so it kind of sets, you know, in my stomach for a while. And, you know, you just question yourself, what I did wrong or what I could have done differently. . .

I'm (was) really looking forward to this revenge. When I saw the draw, you never really look ahead, but there was a possibility we might meet up in the Round of 16, got fired up already for it, you know, after beating Gabashvili, really, and I heard he was beating Soderling. So me and my coach obviously thought about it, how to play and everything, seemed to go pretty well.

Nothing wrong with a guy using the word “revenge”, instead of delivering the usual party line: I never look at the draw, I take them one match at a time! (which, incidentally, is the most outrageous and popular fiction the pros try to propagate).

At one point, Haas even said thathe saw a little of himself in his next opponent, Andy Murray. And he wasn’t talking about his forehand grip, he was drawing a parallel in their skills as tongue-lashers:

. . .I'm not going at my coach or whoever is in the box, you know, saying mean things on purpose, or, you know, that I actually mean. It's just, you know, you just let it out. You know, you're there with the team, you know it's a single sport, you're always on the court by yourself. Tennis is a very strong, complicated game with a lot of different factors that I could sit here for probably an hour and talk about which other sports have it much easier than us tennis players.

But, you know, so when our coach maybe doesn't look at you the second you look at them, because you may have missed the tough shot, and there was, you know, a close call, whatever, you know, you just want to let him know that, listen, I'm here, let's go. I mean, that's what you're here for.

So I think me and Andy are pretty similar, what we say or how we are actually trying to get the attention from our coach every once. It's not like we want to be coached or need to hear something, we just want to, you know, feel like we're a team, that's all.

This seems to me a quote that yields a good deal of insight into Tommy Haas. All of his life, he’s been a guy with a team inclination (head coach: Nick Bollettieri); he doesn’t especially care for the loneliness inherent in his occupation, which must make his life considerably more difficult and perhaps help explain why he has never punched through to the top. His Davis Cup record, of which he is very proud, and the fact that he cites his silver medal performance in the Sydney Olympics as a career high-water mark), are further signs that this is a player in search of a team; a Nowhere Man looking for a somewhere to be, and in the company of others.

I asked him if there was a silver lining, mentally or emotionally, to his history of injuries that kept him off the tour for a total 15 months. Haas is a guy who neither asks for sympathy nor gives any, as befitting a hard case. He replied without a trace of emotion:

The only thing really that I'm grateful is the surgery went well and that I had good guys around me that whole time to never, you know, stop believing in me. And, you know, that's basically also Nick Bollettieri, my former coach, Red Ayme, the guy that was working on my shoulder for a long time, Dave Hogarth..

So that's really the main thing that I'm back, I can play without pain, you know. You never know. You always sometimes in the back of your mind know that you have a serious surgery there, so you always hope, you know, if you feel a little bit, like a little tweak or a little pain, hopefully it's not too serious.

Sometimes the balls are pretty soft and you feel your own shoulder more than other days, and you just hope that something like this will not reoccur until the end of your career, basically, 'cause that's like, for a sport guy, in general, I think, you know to stop or to always worry about injuries, there's nothing worse.

And, of course, I wondered if Tommy saw himself as the Nowhere Man of tennis – has he been a “forgotten guy”? He said:

Tommy3_2

Not really. Everybody has a different career. You know, some guys go out there and have no injuries for 15 years and play and have, you know, everything going for them in some ways.

You know, I'm not really, you know, regretful that I had two shoulders surgeries at my peak time. . . You know, I'm the oldest guy in the top 10, but I still feel like I've, you know, a few good years left where I can probably play some of my best tennis, maybe because I didn't play for 15 months because of two shoulder surgeries.

. . . I kind of like it quiet anyway, to be honest. I'm not the guy that needs to be in the limelight or needs to be like, you know, wherever, out in the newspapers and in the front pages.  I don't appreciate that too much. I just go about my business. I'm back in the top 10, which was one of my main goals to try to do after the surgery. I didn't think it was maybe possible, because at the beginning when I came back, it looked like I couldn't really serve as hard as I wanted to anymore. But slowly, you know, I've gotten better and, you know, that was one of my main goals, and I achieved it. So I'm pretty happy.

Happy is good. Wherever - or whoever - you are.

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