(I should have written this note when I first began to write The Racquet Scientist posts, but here we are: The Racquet Scientist represents a degree of evolution in my role as an Internet journalist, even though these columns will be published (for now) under the TennisWorld banner. The Racquet Scientist posts will be oriented toward hard news and hot-button issues and stress brevity, clarity, and making the best use of my contacts in the game. We will be following up these posts with video and/or podcasts to share your reactions with our listeners and viewers, so please keep your comments on-topic, at least for the first few hours after these posts go up—PB)
The U.S. is well on its way to producing two intriguing wild cards for the French Open, thanks partly to an unpublicized change in the way those free passes (courtesy of the French Tennis Federation, in what might be called the equivalent of an exchange-student program) are now awarded to U.S. players.
Brian Baker, a just-turned-27 player who has earned the right to be called an authentic "survivor," has already clinched the prized wild card for men. And Melanie Oudin (a survivor in her own way) is well on her way to locking down the one for women.
Baker's situation is particularly poignant, because he reached the Roland Garros junior final in 2003 (he lost to Stanislas Wawrinka), back when the future looked so unassailably bright. But the ensuing years were anything but kind to Baker. He suffered a terrible string of injuries shortly after he made his U.S. Open debut in 2005, where he knocked off No. 9 seed Gaston Gaudio in the first round before losing a tough five-setter to Xavier Malisse.
Before 2005 was out, Baker had the first of what would ultimately be five surgeries (left hip). It was followed by a "sports hernia" in 2006. In 2008 he added three more operations, on his left hip (again), right hip, and elbow. If you remember how hip surgery impacted the careers of Gustavo Kuerten, Magnus Norman, Lleyton Hewitt, and others, you'll appreciate that Baker even playing at the Challenger level again is semi-miraculous. The elbow surgery was a reconstructive one that goes by the name "Tommy John surgery", after the baseball pitcher who underwent the revolutonary procedure in 1974 and eventually made a successful if long-deferred return.
Over the past few years, wild cards to other nations' Grand Slams were awarded to the male and female player who won an invitational tournament held just for that purpose. Last year's tournament generated some controversy because of the role it played in Donald Young missing the French Open. The former prodigy had a great start to 2011, but his ranking wasn't quite high enough to gain direct entry at deadline time. The main-draw cutoff for Slams is a ranking of No. 104, should everyone ranked higher than that be ready and able to play. Young didn't earn an acceptable ranking until after entries had closed (in his case, No. 98). Young then lost in the USTA wild-card playoff tournament, and created a controversy by bashing the organization for not giving him that wild card outright, based on his excellent ranking.
USTA officials told me the other day that the Young brouhaha was not the main reason the system was changed, but skeptics still have their doubts. In any event, this year the wild cards are being granted on the basis of performance in selected, recent clay-court Challenger-level tournaments—two for the men (Sarasota and Savannah, both concluded) and three for the women (Dothan, Ala., Charlottesville, and the ongoing event at Indian Harbor Beach, Fla.). The women's wild card will go to the player who has the best results in a combination of two of the three events.
Baker had to qualify at both Sarasota and Savannah; he made the round of 16 at the former (losing to ATP No. 98 Sam Querrey) and he won the latter—surviving eight matches, one more that it takes to win a Grand Slam event. Among those he defeated in the two-tournament stretch: Robert Kendrick and Robby Ginepri, both seasoned tour players.
Oudin will earn the wild card if she wins or makes the final at Indian Lakes, but Coco Vandeweghe or Lauren Davis could catch her. Most of you will remember that at the U.S. Open in 2009, Oudin riveted the entire country with her run to the quarterfinals. Before losing to Caroline Wozniacki, she defeated, in order, these four Russians (all seeded at the time): Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova, Nadia Petrova. Oudin's ranking topped out at No. 31 in April of 2010, but she's won just 10 matches in the eight Grand Slam events she's played since that enchanted Open. She's struggled mightily, and is presently ranked No. 278.
At 20, Oudin has more time than Baker to make up for lost ground, but it's hard to imagine her crafting a more amazing and inspirational story.