Why Brian Baker never gave up
PARIS -- It's starting to turn into something out of a Disney movie, but Brian Baker knows his fairytale comeback is real. He's got the aches and pains to prove it. Playing his first ATP event in almost 12 years, Baker reached the final of the Nice Open last week, winning three matches in qualifying and another four in the main draw before falling to world No. 14 Nicolas Almagro.
"Of course, I'm sore after playing eight matches," Baker told reporters ahead of his first-round match at the French Open.
But more importantly, he reported, "No major injuries."
The tale of Baker's five surgeries between 2005 and 2008 has been well-chronicled over the past few weeks, with the once-promising junior quickly making up for lost time as he returns to the tour nearly seven years after that string of injuries. And that's not even counting a career-threatening knee surgery in 1999 that kept him out for about nine months.
In 2003, Baker reached the final of the French Open juniors and also scored wins against the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Sergiy Stakhovsky and Marcos Baghdatis. Now 27, he beat both Stakhovsky and (an injured) Monfils in Nice last week.
He wasn't "super surprised" that he was still able to go toe-to-toe with his junior rivals.
"I always knew that I hit the ball well. I've always had confidence in my ability. It's just whether I've been able to put in the training hours and fitness hours off the court to be able to play match in match out throughout a whole tournament," he said. "That's why last week was more important as well that I was able to play eight matches and not hurt myself."
The run was just the latest leap forward in an accelerated comeback that began in July 2011, when Baker entered and won a Futures event in Pittsburgh -- the lowest level of events on the pro circuit. After elbow surgery in early 2008, Baker had enrolled in Belmont University and was on his way to getting a degree in business. But with his body recovering enough to play again, he decided to give tennis another try.
He followed up on his initial success by getting to the final of his second Challenger event, part of the level of tournaments just below the ATP Tour. The small but significant successes continued until Baker burst back into prominence this April by winning the Challenger event in Savannah, Ga., and earning the USTA's French Open wild card in the process.
He decided to go over to France a little early and play the qualifying in Nice to prepare, and the rest is, if not history, then at least one of the sport's more notable comeback stories. Baker's run in Nice vaulted him to No. 141 in the rankings, above his previous high of No. 172 in 2004.
"It was a huge, huge deal," said Baker of last week's result. "I don't think I could have ever envisioned starting in qualies and getting all the way to the final. I knew once I won a couple matches the confident built, and by the end of the week I was feeling good every time I went on the court."
As he kept winning, his entourage kept growing. His girlfriend arrived for the semifinals, his parents and brother came for the final, various aunts and uncles began showing up, and by the time he arrived in Paris, he had 13 people in his circle.
On Monday, Baker will resume his Grand Slam career when he plays his first-round match against Xavier Malisse. He will, quite literally, be picking up where he left off. His last appearance at a major was the 2005 U.S. Open, where he defeated Gaston Gaudio before losing to Malisse.
"It's interesting that I haven't played that many Grand Slam matches, and out of those that I've played, I've played him before," Baker said. "Different surface, seven years ago, and we're both totally different players."
With only a day off in between, Baker is focusing on trying to recover and be ready for the best-of-five encounter. He's optimistic about his chances of continuing his run, but this is uncharted territory for him.
Like last week, he's planning to stay close to the baseline and keep the points short. "I play probably a little different than the typical clay-court player, I guess," he said. "Still try to take the ball pretty early and maybe a little more aggressive on second serve returns than some other players."
After all, he doesn't want to waste any more time.
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