Jérôme Haehnel, the tennis player who was scared of flying

Sep 21, 2016, 12:00:00 AM

Winner of the Open de Moselle in 2004, Jérôme Haehnel has never seen his career completely take off. Truth is, the Frenchman was scared of flying. Crippling.

If Dennis Bergkamp has proven that you can become a football legend without ever boarding a plane, it’s much more complicated for a tennis player. Proof with Jérôme Haehnel, whose career never really took off after his victory at the Open de Moselle in 2004, because of his airsickness.


For a tennis player, flying a plane is a means of transportation almost as common as the tube or taking your car to go to work in the morning for the rest of us. The long hours at the airport, the stopovers, films which you watch above the Atlantic or the Pacific ocean rather than at the cinema, are all part of the job. You book or cancel a flight at the last minute all season long. Mats Wilander notably avoided the Pan Am terrorist attack over Lockerbie in 1988. Ten years later, Marc Rosset delayed his return flight to Switzerland after his defeat in the first round of the US Open to have dinner with a friend at a Chinese restaurant. When he woke up, he found out that the Swissair aircraft he was supposed to be on had crashed in Canada, leaving no survivors. In principle, the fear of flying (or aviophobia) is incompatible with a great career in the four corners of the earth. Huge hope of French tennis at the end of the nineties, Olivier Mutis only took part in tournaments which were located at 500 km maximum from his home, after a bad experience on a plane taking off from Athens in the year 2000. Enough to seriously limit his progression.


Defeated Agassi and Federer


The problem never occured for Mutis at the Open de Moselle, as he originates from Metz. During the 2004 edition, the regional player of the tournament lost in the second round, leaving the crowd to cheer for Jérôme Haehnel, who lived an hour away from Metz, close to Mulhouse. After going through the qualifying round, the Alsace-born player took the high way. He defeated the Argentine José Acasuso before knocking out his fellow countrymen Marc Gicquel, Arnaud Clément and Paul-Henri Mathieu. In the final, he surprised many by defeating an 18 year-old Richard Gasquet (7-6, 6-4). At 24, Haehnel won his first tournament on the major circuit, and entered the Top 100. With this ranking, he could already book his flight for the next Australian Open, without going through the qualifying rounds. But here lied the problem : Haehnel hated flying. So when the question was asked after his victory at the Open de Moselle, he took in on him : « I don’t like flying, but I have to take part in Melbourne, it’s the first Grand Slam tournament of the season. »


The french crowd discovered this funny character a few months earlier at Roland-Garros. Ranked at the 271st world spot, he defeated André Agassi in three small sets on the Central court, for what remains the American’s last match in Paris. « You don’t know me, I’m not surprised », ironically said the hero of the day during his press conference. Haehnel then explained that he always preferred playing the challenger tournaments for financial reasons but also because he didn’t like flying. A fear which came with the years for the one who had travelled to Australia or the United States during his time on the Juniors’ circuit. In 1997, he had even defeated a very young Roger Federer during an ITF tournament in…Venezuela. But then again, the boy is no adventurer. « He’ll never play in India for instance, he’s scared of underdeveloped countries », confesses his girlfriend. 


«The plane was in the middle of a storm »


But in January 2005, Agassi’s torturer took in on him and boarded a Paris-Melbourne to take part in his first Australian Open on the ATP circuit. His last, as well. If his defeat in the first round against the impressive Mikhail Youzhny wasn’t illogical or traumatizing, the flight home turned into a real nightmare for the Frenchman. « The plane was in the middle of a storm. From then on, I started asking myself more and more questions. Moreover, I had already been on two difficult flights in the past. » Too bad for his miles, Haehnel decided to frequent airports less and less, and sacrificed his asian and american tours. There were enough tournaments in Europe which he could reached by car or train. « But when I had to board a plane again, I was very tense, it became a nuisance and had effects on my career. »


After having retired in 2009, Jérôme Haenhel remained in the world of tennis. He coaches players aged 13 and 14 in the academy founded by Thierry Ascione close to Paris, but is one of Nicolas Mahut’s coaches, who’s world number 1 in the doubles. But here again, his phobia remains, and he couldn’t follow his player to Rio for the Olympics or at the US Open. « I still have the same fear, he admitted last summer in the newspaper l’Alsace. It’s still a problem to follow a player all year round. » A part if the player enjoys Challenger tournaments in Europe and taking the train.


By Alexandre Pedro