Best of Three: Former U.S. prospect Brian Baker's remarkable comeback
Brian Baker, a top prospect 10 years ago, won the Savannah Challenger event
Rafael Nadal's yearly point grab continued, winning his seventh title in Barcelona
Maria Sharapova's Stuttgart win bodes well for her chances at Roland Garros
1. Redemption story: We'll get to the Tour level events in a moment. But let's start in Savannah, where Brian Baker won a Challenger event, qualified for the French Open and clinched the Tennis Story of the Year award in one week. A full decade ago, Baker was a top prospect from Tennessee, hailed as "the next Andy Roddick." His junior conquests had names like Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic. Apart from being built for success (6-foot-3, 170 lbs.), he had a true tennis cortex and could even play on clay. In 2003, he reached the finals of the French Open juniors, losing to Stan Wawrinka in a three-set final. He turned pro and found some early success. At the 2005 U.S. Open -- his lone Grand Slam appearance -- he beat Gaston Gaudio, who'd won the French Open the year before.
Then came the injuries, steady and relentless. Shortly after turning pro, Baker underwent three hip surgeries -- bear in mind, this injury has been the death knell for so many players -- a Tommy John elbow surgery and a sports hernia operation. For more than six years, he was effectively out of pro tennis.
Last summer, moonlighting as an assistant coach for Belmont College in Nashville, Baker began a tentative comeback. He won a few matches. Then a few more. He was encouraged but didn't want to overexert the body that had betrayed him so many times. But the hits kept coming -- and pain didn't. Last week in Savannah, he qualified for the main draw and then ran the table, winning the title on Sunday, the day before he turned 27. Coupled with his success the prior week in Sarasota, he nabbed the USTA's "reciprocity wild card" and booked a spot in the main draw of the French Open. Here's nice write-up.
Tennis has a huge capacity to serve us disappointment. Look no further than Andrea Petkovic, the endearing German who had a breakthrough 2011, suffered an injury that sideline her for the first third of 2012, came back last week only to injure her ankle and will now miss the French Open, Wimbledon and the Olympics. But tennis also has a capacity to serve up some tremendous feel-good stories. Consider Baker one of them.
2. Annual point grab: It's spring, which means it's Rafael Nadal's time to hoard points and breeze through the claycourt stretch as if in the HOV lane. Last weekend he won the Monte Carlo title. On Sunday, he brought his scorched earth campaign to Barcelona, where his ground-and-pound game outclassed David Ferrer. If Nadal's winning was wholly expected, there were some noteworthy results to come out of Barcelona, not least Milos Raonic scoring the biggest win of his ascending career, taking out Andy Murray.
3. Sharapova breaks through: For a player who's been struggling in big matches and is self-admittedly no one's clay court specialist, Maria Sharapova turned in her most impressive week in recent memory. In winning the Stuttgart title, she beat the previous three Grand Slam champs -- Victoria Azarenka, Sam Stosur and Petra Kvitova; ranked Nos. 1, 3 and 5 respectively -- and did a convincing impersonation of a No. 1 player. One blockbuster week comes with the usual SEC disclaimer: Past performance doesn't guarantee future returns. But it sure augurs well for the next six or so weeks. Between Serena's run in Charleston and Sharapova's run last week, who else has a feeling that someone's Grand Slam title drought might end in Paris?
• Here's our latest SI Tennis Podcast. Chris Evert sits in for a sessions and was, predictably, great. This is worth 40 minutes of your time.
• Doubles winners: Iva Benesova and Babs Zahlavova Strycova took the Stuttgart title. Petra Cetkovska and Alexandra Panova hoisted hardware in Fez. On the men's side, the polar Poles Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski took Barcelona. Carsten Ball and Bobby Reynolds won Savannah.
• In Fez, qualifier Kiki Bertens of the Nethlerlands recovered from a shaky start to win her first WTA title, beating Laura Pous-Tio 7-5, 6-0.
• Gilles Simon wins the Bucharest event and gets the "BRD Nastase Tiriac Trophy" -- which, one suspects, has been privy to some wild times.
• A clap of the racket to Ashley Hendrick, a tennis player for Aquinas College, who played her final college match last weekend at her team's regionals. We wrote about Ashley several years ago and it got quite a bit of response. Happy to say the story has only gotten better.