There is more than one kind of iron man in sports. The names of the most familiar kind roll off the tongue with ease: Cal Ripken Jr., Brett Favre, A.C. Green. Then there is Roger Federer, who is often said to be made of silk, not iron. Yet, starting in July 2004, Federer made at least the semifinals of 23 consecutive Grand Slam events.
Now meet another type of iron man: Tommy Haas.
Haas is 36 years old, and by the time he turns 37, he expects to be playing again at the highest ATP level. Haas hopes to return to the fray starting at Indian Wells, after enduring yet another surgery in a career that has featured, among other human frailties, two broken ankles (1995, 1996), a bum hip, and two bad shoulder injuries. And those are just the ailments that required surgery. We won’t even get into the “minor” stuff in this Haas of pain, like the bulging disc or tennis elbow or any of the other hurts that once sidelined Haas.
The fact that Tommy Haas can walk and lift his arm above his shoulder at all makes him an iron man. He’s the opposite number to the one that doesn’t get hurt. He gets hurt -- “wrecked” might be more like it -- but he always comes back to play some of the prettiest -- and most explosive -- tennis you will ever see.
Haas never won a Grand Slam event; you almost have to wonder how he avoided it. At the majors, he was a four-time semifinalist as well as a four-time quarterfinal loser. He bolted to a career-high ranking of No. 2 nearly 13 years ago, in May 2002. Then Haas’ parents were involved in a horrific motorcycle accident that left Peter Haas in a coma. Tommy quit the tour, and when he returned, he blew out his shoulder.
The rest is a history of fits and starts and an unlikely late career revival that culminated with Haas ranked as high as No. 12 in 2014 -- before a second severe shoulder injury ended his year. The peaks for Haas are higher than the valleys are deep. He has plenty of big wins even if he hasn’t recorded the big win. Before he blew out his shoulder the first time, Haas was 14-7 combined against Pete Sampras, Federer, Andy Roddick, Jim Courier and Marat Safin. Sampras fared best against Haas, at 5-5.
Now Tommy Haas is No. 77, mainly because of all the tennis he’s missed over the past months. And he will be the first one to tell you that he has no idea what to expect when he returns.
“Sure, I think about the consequences all the time,” he told me the other day over the phone. “But I have a lot of experience stopping and coming back. You wonder, ‘Am I going to be a step too slow? Can I still hit that that 120 mph ace?’ I wasn’t sure I could come back from that hip injury I had at my age, but that was ages ago, when I was 32.”
Actually, “iron man” may not be the most accurate way to describe Haas. It’s more like he’s made from a high grade of tensile steel, like EN19T.
That Haas has been able to play through that pain and all the uncertainty that accompanies those long, postsurgical layoffs and rehab sessions is astonishing. He ought to donate his body to science, although the great secret to Haas’s longevity, and recuperative abilities, may have much less to do with his muscle fiber and bone than with his attitude.
“I’m living my dream,” Haas said. “I was aware of that one thing all of the time. The thing is to be flexible. At every stage I wanted to see where my desire takes me. And I never went through one of those periods when you lose so many matches that it kills your confidence. Also, I’ve always wanted to quit tennis on my own terms.”
Like many great players, Haas also knows how to milk motivation out of every source. His daughter, Valentina, is 4 years old now. Haas has conceded that it’s “kind of cheesy” to drag infants and toddlers into the spotlight, but what he wants is a little more complicated. He said, “I will probably continue to play tennis as long as I can. Senior tour and stuff like that. But I want Valentina to see her dad at his best, and at an age when she’s old enough to actually remember it.”
That is, Haas would like his daughter see him play like he did in the Halle final of 2012 against Federer. Haas worried that he might be finished after hip surgery in 2010; the Halle final, which he won 7-6 (5), 6-4, was the crowning touch of that comeback (was it comeback No. 3, 5, or 7?).
“I wasn’t sure I could make it back,” he said. “But to accomplish that, in Germany, and on Father’s Day? It’s one of the top highlights for me.”
Nothing gets an iron man more juiced up than a win over one of his own kind.