Category Archives: Tommy Haas

Known Unknowns for Rafael Nadal

When Rafael Nadal returns to the tour–very soon, we hope–he will be entering uncharted territory.  Plenty of players miss time to injury, but it is rare for a top player to miss anywhere near this much time.

In fact, only three top 10-ranked players have ever left the tour and returned after a layoff of six months or longer.

Only one of those three–Juan Martin del Potro, in 2010–was forced to rest due to injury.  John McEnroe twice left the tour for stretches of several months, and Tommy Haas took time off in 2002 to take care of his family.  Haas’s layoff turned into something a bit more relevant, as his sabbatical was extended by a shoulder injury he suffered in preparation for a comeback.

While del Potro’s future is still unclear, the precedent for Nadal is concerning.  None of those players ever returned to their pre-layoff rankings.

Del Potro’s story, in fact, is the most encouraging.  When he suffered his shoulder injury, he had recently won the US Open and reached the final of the World Tour Finals, reaching a career-high ranking of #5.  With the exception of a brief return in October of 2010, he missed almost exactly one year.  While he didn’t return to the top 10 for another year, he won two small tournaments early on and reached the semifinals of Indian Wells barely two months into his comeback.  Two years later, his ranking is up to #7, still short of his pre-injury peak.

When Haas left the tour at the end of 2002, he had just recently fallen from his career-high ranking of #2.  When he returned more than a year later, he had early success similar to Del Potro’s, reaching the 4th round at Indian Wells and winning two events in his first six months.  Yet he didn’t return to the top 10 for nearly three years.

McEnroe is the enigma of this bunch.  Ranked #2 in the world at the beginning of 1986, he needed a break from the tour.  Seven months later, he began a comeback at Stratton Mountain, where he reached the semis and lost to Boris Becker.  After a clunker of a first-round loss at the US Open, he reeled off 18 consecutive wins, including three over top-10 players.  That put him back in the top 10, but it was two years into the comeback that he regained a position in the top 5–in part due to another six-month layoff beginning in September 1987.

Aging patterns

What the recaps of Haas’s and McEnroe’s layoffs hide is that, while they weren’t playing, they were headed into an age range where most pros start declining.  At the time of their returns, McEnroe was 26, Haas 25–a typical player’s peak age, at least before today’s new era of indestructible 30-somethings.

While McEnroe has shown astonishing longevity, his years as a contender for world #1 were probably about over when he took his sabbaticals.  And Haas missed the year in which he might have played his very best tennis.

Neither player is a clear precedent for a clay court genius with knee problems, but the age factor is tough to ignore.  Nadal turned 26 in June, putting him right in between Haas and McEnroe at the times of their departures from the tour.

Assuming Rafa is healthy, there’s little doubt he’ll maintain his position in the top 10.  I’d be surprised if he didn’t win at least a couple of clay court events this year, even if he maintains a much-reduced schedule.  But if history is any indication, he has seen the last of the top two.

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Filed under Injuries, Juan Martin Del Potro, Rafael Nadal, Tommy Haas

Tommy Haas: Old and Winning

For all the talk of 30-somethings at the top of the modern men’s game, tennis players decline quickly.  30 may be the new 20, but 35 is still the same old 35, and 35-year-old tennis players are usually found on the champions tour, the doubles court, or national television.

Yet Tommy Haas, aged 34 years and 5 months, is enjoying a resurgence, having reached three finals in the last two months–on three different surfaces.  He’s one of the hottest players on tour of any age.

34-year-olds don’t do things like that.  In the last ten years, players 34 and older have accounted for fewer than 1% of wins on the ATP tour.  From 2008 to 2011, all 34-year-olds–combined–won a total of 17 tour-level matches.  In the five months since his birthday, Haas has won 22.

To find a point of comparison, we need to go back five years, to the 2007 campaign of Fabrice Santoro, and slightly earlier, to Andre Agassi‘s 2004 season.  Agassi at 34 was better than Haas at 34, winning 37 tour-level matches and reaching two grand slam quarterfinals.  Agassi was the best “old” player since Jimmy Connors and the only man in the discussion since the 1970s.

Yet already, Haas is among the best 34-and-overs in ATP history.  His 22 wins since his 34th birthday are good for 28th on the all-time list, ahead of Fred Stolle and just behind Roy Emerson.  But that understates Haas’s accomplishment.  With the exceptions of Santoro, Agassi, and Connors (whose 178 wins-past-34 are good for 2nd on the all time list, behind Ken Rosewall), everyone on the list retired more than 20 years ago.

Comparisons to Haas’s contemporaries do a better job of illustrating how unusual he is.  The only two older men to have won a match on tour this year are Arnaud Clement and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo, neither of whom are a factor anywhere but the challenger tour.  The other 34-year-old to win some matches this season is hyper-fit warrior Michael Russell, who took advantage of the weak draws in Atlanta and Los Angeles.

As long as he stays healthy, Haas is far from finished.  According to Jrank, he’s the 11th-best hard court player in the game right now. He may not have another grand slam final ahead of him, as Agassi did at the same age, but he has more wins in his future than most players a decade his junior.

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Filed under Research, Tommy Haas