What a ride for Brian Baker
PARIS -- Nine years ago, Brian Baker finished as the world's No. 7-ranked junior, one spot behind Andy Murray and ahead of, among others, Richard Gasquet, Tomas Berdych and a spare 16-year-old Serb named Novak Djokovic, who came in at No. 118.
"Actually, he was one of the best, if not I think the best, junior in the world," Djokovic said Wednesday. "He won the Orange Bowl when I played, I remember. He's a very, very talented player. He always had a very smart game, a variety of shots."
These days, of course, Djokovic finds himself the No. 1 professional player in the world. Was Baker better than Djokovic was back in the day?
"Well, he was older and he was better at that time, yes," Djokovic said, smiling. "I have actually seen him yesterday after a very long time. I was pleasantly surprised with his comeback. It's great to see him back."
Indeed it is or, rather, was. And although Baker's wildly improbable adventure through France has ended, charting the progress of this 27-year-old from Nashville over the rest of his career should be fun.
Playing his 10th match in 12 days, Baker lost to world No. 12 Gilles Simon -- a Frenchman playing in the biggest stadium at the French Open -- by a score of 6-4, 6-1, 6-7 (4), 1-6, 6-0. In retrospect, that's a tough ask of a guy who a year ago was playing for his father's and uncle's Middle Tennessee Tennis League.
After rallying to force the first fifth-set match of his life, Baker looked utterly spent. His white socks were nearly invisible, obscured by the red dust on Court Philippe Chatrier, and he shuffled rather than slid his way through the last six games. In the end, adrenaline alone couldn't carry him any further.
Baker's comeback has become the feel-good story of the season. Five career-threatening surgeries -- the most challenging a Tommy John reconstruction of his right elbow -- forced him out of tennis, but after an absence of nearly six years, his rise has been spectacular.
"There were a lot of rough points," Baker acknowledged afterward. "I tried to stay positive even though I knew I was realistic knowing maybe I might never play again. You have to be realistic. You're not going to keep on having major surgeries to try to continue your career. I never had the point where I ready to throw in the towel."
Even if you are a casual fan of the game, by now you probably know the details: He won a Challenger event in Savannah, Ga., in late April to earn the USTA's wild-card berth here at Roland Garros. Two weeks ago, after qualifying in Nice, he beat former top-10 players Gael Monfils and Nikolay Davydenko to reach the final. Then, after beating Xavier Malisse in the first round here, Baker admitted he was sore after playing so much in so few days.
He played 16 hours of high-level tennis in less than two weeks.
"I feel pretty bad right now," said Baker, who said he was sore all over and struggling with an injured shoulder.
After losing the first two sets, many left Baker for dead. But he wormed his way into a tiebreaker -- winning five of the first six points -- and then needed only 25 minutes to wrap up the fourth set. At that point, it looked like Baker was going to create another raft of headlines. But Simon dug in and Baker had nothing left.
On Tuesday, Baker tweeted this with the enthusiasm of a giddy American in Paris: @BBakestennis: "I'm so not ready to leave Paris yet"
The good news? Baker has earned nearly 56,000 euros over the past two weeks, roughly $70,000, so he can afford to stay in one of those five-star hotels on the Champs-Elysees. The guy who began the year ranked in the mid-400s and soared to No. 141 a week ago is likely to wind up close to No. 125 on Monday. He's 4-2 in six ATP matches after that long hiatus and is sure to turn up in a few more draws this summer.
There's a lot to like about his diverse game, which plays particularly well on clay. He changes the depth and trajectory of his ground strokes at will and often unleashed a killer drop shot. And, as Djokovic said, he is a very smart player.
Baker said he'd like to take seven to 10 days off to rest and work on his fitness. After that, he hopes to play a grass warm-up tournament and, if a wild card isn't forthcoming, playing Wimbledon qualifying. He would likely accept wild cards to the summer hard-court events in North America.
"It's definitely going to be something that I'll be able to look back and say that I played on, you know, center court at the French Open and went five sets, even though hopefully I'll forget about what happened in the fifth," Baker said, smiling.
"[Tennis is] the thing that I've spent the most time in my life doing. I definitely am a very competitive person and love the sport of tennis. So it wasn't easy to have it taken away from me the way it was. I've always gone over what's worse: playing and not being good enough or playing and getting hurt and not knowing if you were good enough.
"So that's why I think it's been so much more special this time around, just from what I've gone through and knowing that, how easily it can be taken away from you."
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