The Toss: Feel-good stories of the ATP
Brian Baker began the year ranked No. 456 and Tommy Haas started at No. 205. One is a former junior standout a decade ago whose career was derailed by injuries (including hip and shoulder surgeries) for years, and the other is a former No. 2 player in the world a decade ago whose career was derailed by injuries (including hip and shoulder surgeries) at various times. But now both are inside the top 80 and have won or contended for ATP titles in 2012, emerging as two of the better stories in tennis. But whose story resonates more? Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times joins The Toss to look at two tales of perseverance and revival.
Today's Toss: Who is the better story, Brian Baker or Tommy Haas?
Courtney Nguyen: This year has been filled with comebacks. Just to name a few: Maria Sharapova finally cemented her climb back to the top with a French Open title, and Serena Williams -- who missed most of 2011 with injuries and lost in the first round at Roland Garros this year -- one-upped her by breaking a two-year major drought with a hard-earned Wimbledon title, followed by the Olympic gold medal. Venus Williams returned from missing nearly seven months with an autoimmune disease to qualify for the Olympics and team with Serena to win their third Olympic doubles gold. And, of course, there's that Roger Federer guy, who regained the No. 1 ranking for the first time in two years after his Wimbledon victory.
Even the B-stories have been full of warm-and-fuzzy displays of physical and emotional resilience, such as how Andy Murray bounced back from a crushing loss in the Wimbledon final to win London gold, or how Juan Martin del Potro -- continuing his slow and steady ascent after a major wrist injury -- scored a gutsy win over Novak Djokovic in the bronze-medal match only 48 hours after leaving Centre Court in tears following a loss to Federer in a historic match that ended 19-17 in the decisive third set.
The 2012 motto has been, "Think I'm down and out? Think again." OK, fine, it's not going to get the bumper-sticker treatment, but just go with it.
But when it comes to unsung comeback stories, none are more inspiring than Baker and Haas. Both men, true talents in their youth, have been snakebit by injury. Now, years after their glory days, they're surging. So which is the better story?
I'm going with the 27-year-old Baker. Granted, Haas has had an amazing run since starting the year ranked No. 205, especially the last two months. He stunned Federer in the Halle final to win his first title in three years, and built on that momentum by advancing to the finals of Hamburg and Washington, D.C. He's now ranked 23rd after making the quarterfinals at the Rogers Cup last week (he lost in the second round of the Western & Southern Open on Wednesday). Did I mention he's 34 years old? That's good stuff.
But the Baker story is even better. This is all uncharted territory for the former junior phenom, a 2003 finalist in French Open boys' singles and a guy whom Andy Roddick thought would be his primary American competition in the pros. But Baker never got a chance to fulfill that promise because a slew of injuries -- including three hip surgeries, Tommy John elbow surgery and a sports hernia operation -- kept him from playing in ATP-level tournaments for six years.
When he returned, Baker didn't benefit from multiple wild cards from Slams or Masters tournaments to help boost his ranking. He did it the hard way, re-establishing himself first at Futures and Challengers events. In April, with his ranking hovering around No. 300, Baker won eight matches at the Savannah Challenger (three in qualifying, five in the main draw) to take the title, helping him earn a USTA wild card into the French Open, his first main draw at a Grand Slam since 2005. And before getting to Roland Garros, Baker kept rolling by qualifying for the Nice main draw and advancing all the way to his first ATP final. His run at the 250 event featured four victories against top-100 players, including Gael Monfils.
We all know what happened from there. Baker defeated No. 77 Xavier Malisse in the first round of the French Open and pushed Gilles Simon to five sets in the second round. Denied a wild card into Wimbledon, Baker worked through qualifying to reach the Round of 16 -- not a bad debut at the All England Club. Baker has struggled since then, but he's still a top-80 player right now.
This is the stuff of Cinderella stories, Hollywood scripts centered on a guy who worked his way back into relevance against significant odds. It's the quintessential American story. What's not to love here?
Ben Rothenberg: I'm not going to try to knock Baker, because I don't think it can be done legitimately. Baker has risen from some incredible depths with unbelievable speed, coming out of nowhere to become a relevant American presence at any tournament he enters.
But we're talking about the better "story," and I think Haas is the better story because we know the character so well. Haas has been a major presence in men's tennis for more than a decade now, while a lot of fans didn't know or remember Baker until his emergence this year. Haas has had his story play out on a far more high-profile stage, and his nearly unparalleled longevity in the public eye is maybe more impressive than someone about whom we really only heard for the first time when he won a wild card to the French Open. Haas, we know. We've witnessed every tough loss to a top guy, every dispute with his federation, every ponytail and every string of barked German profanity. It's a longer story arc, so there's a lot more with which to work.
Plus, Haas -- who, as recently as two years ago, played only four tournaments because of hip and elbow surgeries -- has hit the higher heights this year. He's top 25 while Baker hasn't broken the top 70. He beat "that Roger Federer guy" in the final of a quality ATP tournament, in Halle, then made the finals of 500-level tournaments in Hamburg and Washington. And he's had to work for it, too. He played a Challenger in Dallas despite his name recognition. The guy was No. 2 in the world at one point, yet willingly played qualifying at Roland Garros this year without raising much of a fuss or begging for a wild card (ahem, Lleyton Hewitt). We don't know what Baker's place in this sport will be a year from now, and if he doesn't keep up these results, his story might not be remembered much beyond this year. But Haas has transcended multiple generations (his first ATP final win was against Jim Courier, remember) in a rare way. He's a story to tell your grandkids about one day. Then again, Tommy Haas will probably still be playing when your grandkids arrive.