Peter Bodo continues his year-end awards—12 in all, for 2012—with the Comebacks of the Year. You can see rest of his selections as well as the upcoming awards at the end of this article.
Men’s: Tommy Haas
When it comes to comebacks, how do you top the story Brian Baker created this year? It was an astonishing return to pro tennis by a guy who was sidelined for six years after enduring five surgeries. But I have to pass on the semi-miraculous and give the nod to a more conventional but also more productive and consistent display of self-belief, determination, and outstanding play.
At the start of 2012, Tommy Haas was 33, ranked outside the Top 200, and coming off a potentially career-ending hip injury (and surgery) that kept him out of action for 14 months starting in February 2010. But Haas decided to take another shot with his elegant game that had been a staple of the tour since 1996, and earned him a career-high ranking of No. 2 a decade ago.
The motivation for his comeback was somewhat unusual. Haas and his wife, actress Sara Foster, became parents in December 2011. After the birth of their daughter Valentina, Haas told the German tabloid Bild: “I assure you, my daughter will see her dad play tennis.” Although he didn’t say “on the ATP tour,” it’s pretty clear now that’s exactly what he meant.
Haas first turned heads—again—when he posted back-to-back wins over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Marcos Baghdatis en route to a semifinal finish at the Munich ATP 250. Denied a wild card into Roland Garros, Haas played the qualifying and ended up slashing all the way to the third round of the major.
By then, Haas had turned 34, but the best was yet to come. At Halle, he beat Roger Federer in the final of the Swiss’ annual grass-court tune-up. And so what if that grass-court event wasn’t Wimbledon? It was a remarkable achievement that Haas continued to back up with stamina and focus worthy of a player 10 years his junior.
Haas lost a five-set, first-round heartbreaker to Philipp Kolhschreiber at Wimbledon, but he was making headlines again when the tour returned to his homeland just a few weeks later. He reached the final of Munich and, switching to hard courts and the U.S., was a finalist in Washington.
And still Haas continued, with a quarterfinal showing at the Canadian Masters, and his second win in two weeks over former Wimbledon finalist David Nalbandian in Cincinnati. At the U.S. Open, Haas built a two-set lead on erratic but talented Ernests Gulbis, but the Latvian eventually wore him down and won in five sets.
At this point, Haas was running low on ammo, but he still had three big bullets left. In Shanghai, he posted wins over No. 11 Nicolas Almagro and No. 9 Janko Tipsarevic to reach the quarters. The win was good enough to bump Haas back into the Top 20, although he would finish the year at no. 21.
Then, at Vienna, Haas’ final tournament of the year, the German logged his historic 500th win (by defeating Jesse Levine in the second round)—a feat that put him in the exclusive company of Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Lleyton Hewitt, the only others active players with 500 or more wins. Haas called it a season after he lost in third round at that event.
Haas’ reward from the tournament: A Fiat 500. Unlike Haas, the car may run out of gas now and then.
Honorable Mention: Brian Baker
Baker’s friend Amer Delic probably put it best on Twitter, after Baker was awarded the USTA’s wild card for the French Open: “Brian Baker... Same guy that USTA refused to give a WC for qualies of the clay court future last summer. . .” Although Baker struggled a bit during the summer months, he still made it up to No. 61 for the year. It was a remarkable end to a story that began when Baker drove to Pittsburgh from his home in Tennessee to try to qualify for a Futures event (that’s below the minor league Challenger events), and he ended up winning it.
Women: Yaroslava Shvedova
One of a number of Russian pros who lit out for the greener pastures of Kazakhstan, Shvedova struggled mightily in 2011, partly because of a nervous tic in one eye. In 2012, Shvedova began wearing prescription sports glasses and—presto!—became just the second pro (after Bill Scanlon) to record a Golden Set, and she improved her ranking by a whopping 177 places, from No. 206 to No. 29.
Alright, so it wasn’t quite so. . . presto. But the 5’11” righthander re-established herself as a serious threat to seeded players with her athletic, power-baseline game. Her year started with a misfire: Shvedova optimistically tried to qualify for the Australian Open but lost her first match.
Shvedova then made two ITF-level finals in Mexico (Irapuato and Poza Rica), boosting her ranking to No. 150. She still had to qualify for the French Open, but she won eight matches in Paris (including an upset of No. 7 Li Na) before Petra Kvitova ended her run in the quarterfinals. With her ranking now up in the 60s, she was well into direct entry territory for Grand Slam events.
At Wimbledon, Shvedova advanced to a third round-meeting with No. 10 Sara Errani, where she demonstrated just how dynamic her straight-ahead, power game can be. Errani was fresh off a runner-up performance at the French Open, but Shvedova won the first 24 points of that clash, thereby accomplishing a feat that had eluded Martina Navratilova on grass as well as Steffi Graf and Chris Evert on clay—she became the first WTA player to win a set without losing a single point.
It took all of Serena Williams’ skills—and a bushel of aces—to stop Shvedova in the next round. Williams won the tense, dramatic encounter, 7-5 in the third.
Shvedova struggled with injury and a loss of confidence over the next few months. The only tournament where she won two matches or more was Cincinnati, where she was victorious in four (two in qualifying). But the ranking system being what it is, she backed into the Top 30 as the women ranked ahead of her failed to defend or add to their ranking points.
Whatever the immediate future holds for the 25-year-old, her place in tennis history is assured by that Golden Set she produced at the biggest tournament of them all.
Honorable Mention: Nadia Petrova
The closest she’s come to a tailspin since she first breaking into the Top 100 was last year, when the (then) 29-year-old’s ranking fell to No. 29. Early this year, she tumbled further, to No. 35. But she turned it around as she turned 30 in June, ending the year with her highest ranking (No. 12) since she was No. 11 at the end of 2008.
12 for '12: Year-End Awards
- Wednesday, November 28: Coaches of the Year
- Thursday, November 29: Doubles Performances of the Year
- Friday, November 30: Tournaments of the Year
- Saturday, December 1: Upsets of the Year
- Sunday, December 2: Quotes of the Year
- Monday, December 3: Feuds of the Year
- Tuesday, December 4: Newcomers of the Year
- Wednesday, December 5: Most Improved Players
- Thursday, December 6: Biggest Disappointments
- Friday, December 7: Comebacks of the Year
- Saturday, December 8: Runner-Ups of the Year
- Sunday, December 9: Stories of the Year