Brian Baker down but never out
Nine years ago, Brian Baker was a revelation in Paris.
He beat Marcos Baghdatis in the quarterfinals of the Roland Garros junior tournament, then Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals. Even when Baker lost to Stanislas Wawrinka in the final, it seemed likely -- based on the elite company he was keeping -- that Baker had a promising future as a professional.
But as Baker has learned, the future is promised to no one. He watched helplessly -- at the mercy of his broken body -- as those three players all blossomed into top-10 players.
"There was no one super-low breaking point," Baker said Monday from his home in Nashville, Tenn. "But the first few years, watching TV and seeing guys I used to compete against do so well, it was tough to watch that stuff.
"I've learned that you can't fight what you can't control. There were definitely times when you'd ask 'Why me?' But you just try to roll with it and hope there are better times ahead."
And now, improbably, nearly a decade later, those good times are here.
After being out of tennis for six years, after enduring five major surgeries -- left hip, sports hernia, right hip, left hip again and a Tommy John elbow procedure -- Baker is headed back to Paris for a first-round, main-draw debut match at Roland Garros. He turned 27 years old Monday and hasn't played an ATP-level match since the 2005 U.S. Open, where he beat then-No. 9-ranked Gaston Gaudio in the first round. It remains Baker's only victory in a major. He is 4-12 in ATP-level matches.
Baker began his comeback last summer, which culminated with eight match wins in nine days in the Savannah Challenger in Georgia, picking up 80 ATP ranking points, $7,200 and a sweet crystal vase. Even more valuable was the USTA wild card into the 2012 French Open, which starts in late May.
"I'm really excited to get back to Paris," Baker said, "where I had some pretty good results back in the day."
Back in the day. As he finished that sentence, Baker lingered on those last four words.
"Yeah," he said, laughing. "That's ancient history."
He tries not to play the "guessing game" of what his career would have been had he not suffered so many debilitating injuries.
"Some guys who do well in juniors don't always pan out as pros," Baker said. "But with those injuries, I never gave myself that true chance to find out what I could do. I lost several years off my career due to injuries, but I try to not look back.
"Yeah, playing the French Open has a pretty good ring to it. That's definitely one of the main reasons I came back. I knew if my body could cooperate, I could come back and, hopefully, play in Grand Slams."
Five Questions with Brian Baker
ESPN.com: The USTA wild card went to the best combined performance in back-to-back Challengers in Sarasota, Fla., and Savannah, but you lost in the second round at Sarasota. What was your confidence level coming into Savannah last week?
Baker: I actually played well in Florida. I got through qualies, then beat Ryan Sweeting in the first round. In the second round, I was up a break on Sam Querrey in the third set, but didn't finish it. I was disappointed, but still pretty confident with my game on clay. I qualified in Savannah and was lucky not to have too many gruesome matches [winning 16 of 17 sets].
ESPN.com: That list of injuries is horrific. Any one of them could have been career-threatening. Which one was the worst to deal with?
Baker: They were all pretty serious. The sports hernia surgery probably was the easiest to come back from, in 2006. The hip surgeries were tough. I mean, Gustavo Kuerten and Magnus Norman never really played the same after they suffered those. The Tommy John surgery [February 2008] is not common in tennis. You're usually looking at a year off and, in my case, it was even longer than that. They're taking a tendon from your forearm and trying to replace a ligament in the elbow. Once that started feeling better, it gave me the confidence to give it another go. If you're out as long as I was, you're never certain you'll come back. You just try and stay positive. I felt like I had some things to prove on the tennis court. I was realistic I couldn't ever play again. I just didn't want to let the dream go too easy.
ESPN.com: What did you do for those six years out of tennis?
Baker: I would have gone back to school sooner, but when they're telling you it'll only be four, five months, you keep working out, thinking you can come back. Once I had the elbow surgery, I went to Belmont University with normal student hours. I also helped coach the tennis team. I was majoring in business with a finance concentration, and I still have one year to go. I was hitting the ball all along, but that's totally different from playing matches five days in a row. Last summer when I started feeling better, I figured it was now or never.
ESPN.com: You won a Futures title in Pittsburgh last July. How did that feel?
Baker:Pretty amazing. You have a lot of mental ups and downs. It's hard to explain. You get taken in a lot of different directions. You think your career is over and that it's time to find something else you're passionate about, maybe move on to the business world. Then you start to feel good again and you wonder, "Am I as good as I used to be? Has the game changed? Have you changed?" For me, it's like a blessing come true. I'm really excited to get this second career. Not too many people get that kind of revival. I'm not going to take it for granted, because I know how easily it can be taken away.
ESPN.com: You're ranked No. 214, not that far below your career best, No. 172 in November 2004. What are your short-term goals?
Baker: I just drove back from Georgia last night, so I'm trying to figure that out today and tomorrow. There's a chance I'll play qualies in the Nice [France] tournament the week before the French. It's not 100 percent, but it would be nice to get a clay warm-up in. At the very least, I'll be going down to Florida to train for four, five days with some friends in the Tampa area. As far as goals go, I haven't had time to come up with anything performance-based. My body seems to be cooperating for the most part, so I'd like to be inside the top 150 or maybe even try to crack the top 100 if everything goes well. It's definitely exciting. I'm hoping I can keep going and push through. If I stay healthy this time, I might be able to get four or five years out of it.