By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
Not every sport needs a feel-good story, but they really help bring in fans that might otherwise not be so interested. Unfortunately for tennis, its feel-good story—especially the American ones—have fallen flat recently.
Mardy Fish lost 30 pounds and made fitness more a part of his life instead of just his tennis game a few years ago. He finally began to consistently compete in the deeper rounds of Masters and Slams. Then, just over a year ago, he discovered a heart condition and has barely competed since.
Brian Baker was everyone’s heartwarming story last year. He was a top junior player but missed almost seven years after a long string of injuries that necessitated five surgeries. He came back last year to reach the final in Nice (after coming through the qualifying) and was competitive at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He tore his meniscus in the second round of this year’s Australian Open and hasn’t competed since.
This is why Tommy Haas is such a breath of fresh air. Haas is not a traditional feel-good story. There is no massive life change. There is no adversity that has been overcome in extreme and immediate fashion. Haas is just pure grit, determination, and hard work.
Haas first debuted in the ATP rankings in October 1993, almost 20 years ago. After 10 years of play (the first few on the lower tours, like everyone does), Haas reached a career high of World No. 2 in May of 2002. There is no telling how high he could have gone had tragic circumstances, including his father being in a coma and a severe injury, taken him out of tennis for an extended period of time. During Haas’s leave, Roger Federer arose as the dominant player and Haas lost his next nine matches against the Swiss, until finally beating him in the Halle final last year.
Haas returned to the game in 2004, competing and winning titles before reaching the top 10 again in 2007. 2008, however, was marred by injuries and aside from a great run Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2009, Haas’s career was once again derailed.
This is the story of Tommy Haas’s career. He plays well, works his way into form, competes with just about anyone on tour, and then seems to be knocked off track by injuries at the worst time. If you look at a graph of his career ranking, it almost looks like a repeating curve. His ranking rises to the top of the game and then falls drastically when injury forces him to miss extended periods of time—twice missing more than 12 months and falling out of the rankings completely.
Now, at the age of 35, Haas is back once again. He beat Novak Djokovic in Miami en route to reaching his first Masters 1000 semifinal since Paris back in 2006. He is on the verge of the top 10 and has no points to defend from now until Halle. He has all but guaranteed himself a top 16 seed in Roland Garros and will most likely be able to get a favorable draw both there and in Wimbledon. A few wins at Roland Garros could very easily put Haas back in the top 10 for the first time since 2007, which would be an incredible feat.
Haas is competing at a high level past an age where most players have retired. He hasn’t done it with flash or shocking one-time runs. He has been consistently getting better after each return from injury. His feel-good story is not one of fan-rallying epic proportions. It’s the story of a player who has been dealt poor cards in his career and has made the absolute best of them time and time again. It’s the story of a man who has been on the brink of the top of the game but never quite made it—and he has still never let that get him down. Let’s hope that his current stint on tour lasts until he can leave on his own terms this time.