Baker not fretting comeback blues
Brian Baker overcame five surgeries to make a comeback on the tennis tour. That was hard, possibly unprecedented. When he returned, he reminded folks with his play that he was once the world's second-ranked junior.
Baker did the unusual for an American by appearing in a clay-court final in Nice, France, and later on his eventful European road trip, reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, both times as a qualifier. Old friends remembered him, and his fellow players couldn't help but take notice after his ranking soared almost 400 spots since the end of 2011.
Comeback player of the year? How about comeback player of the century?
But now Baker is facing another challenge. Although continually having to monitor his body, he has to maintain the momentum as the hunted, and that is never easy. Things haven't gone quite as planned since Wimbledon.
The 27-year-old from Nashville heads into next week's U.S. Open, where he is sure to receive even more attention from the media and fervent support from the New York crowd, with a 1-5 record since Wimbledon.
U.S. Open Dark horses
The lead-in to the U.S. Open wasn't the same for many players this year thanks to the Olympics. Several contested only one prep tournament on hard courts, while others, through injury or illness, skipped Canada and Cincinnati altogether.
Are some of the top seeds, then, vulnerable to being upset? Here are five dark horses (non-Grand Slam winners ranked no better than 20th) who could make some noise and oust a big name.
1. Tommy Haas: Haas, at 34, is still playing. And he's playing well, going 18-6 in his past 24 matches. Over that stretch, he's beaten Roger Federer to win the title at home in Halle, Germany, landed in two other finals and reached the quarterfinals at a Masters event in Toronto. Haas, too, outlasted David Nalbandian (in 3½ hours) in Cincinnati.
2. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: Yes, Pavlyuchenkova remains on the tour. You'd be forgiven for thinking that before Wimbledon, she'd disappeared. What a blow it must have been for the Russian to miss the Olympics when late last year her spot looked guaranteed. But showing signs of life, Pavlyuchenkova reached the final in Washington D.C. and quarterfinals in Cincinnati. Was pulling out of the New Haven Open simply a precaution?
3. Brian Baker: How, you ask, can Baker be on this list after compiling a 1-5 record, including a Challenger, since Wimbledon? Physically and mentally, he's had a lot to deal with since returning to the U.S. from Europe. Baker hasn't been blown out in any of the matches he's lost, says he thrives when under the spotlight and will have the New York crowd on his side. Big time.
4. Sam Querrey: Twelve months ago, Querrey was recovering from elbow surgery. He missed the U.S. Open. He subsequently had a minor operation for an umbilical cord infection. But with no points to defend from this Wimbledon until the fall, he has a chance to move up in the rankings. Indeed, in the past two months, Querrey has gone from outside the top 60 to inside the top 30. This could be the major where Querrey gets past the third round for the first time since 2010 at Flushing Meadows.
5. Varvara Lepchenko: As a match against Caroline Wozniacki in Montreal began to get away from her, Lepchenko grew frustrated. A good sign. She wasn't content only to take a set off Wozniacki, which might have been the case early this year. She wanted to win. Lepchenko looked impregnable on serve for a set and a half, and she deserves her spot in the top 40. Lepchenko said she hoped to be healthy for the U.S. Open after sustaining a wrist injury this week.
"It's never a good thing to be losing a lot of first rounds," a calm Baker said in a telephone interview. "But it's not like I've fallen off the wagon. I'm not really concerned. You're going to have some stretches every year where you don't play your best tennis. It's one of those situations where you have to win some of those matches where you don't play your best, get some confidence and roll with it."
That Baker has struggled since Wimbledon isn't a surprise, though losing five of six matches was a bad patch worse than he expected.
"After seeing how well he played and how well he's done, people like me sit back and say, 'This guy could be top 50, top 30,' so that kind of stuff he probably hasn't heard for a while," said Patrick McEnroe, the USTA's general manager of player development and an ESPN analyst.
"He has to deal with the higher expectations from himself and others," McEnroe added. "Before it was all like, 'This guy has done amazing.' Now it's still amazing, but he's become a top-70 player. Now you say, 'What's this guy going to do over the next couple of years?' But I don't think [the losses] are cause for too much alarm."
When in Europe, Baker didn't have the time to digest everything that had happened to him and put his feet up. It was all going by so quickly.
He rested for "five or six" days after Wimbledon, which took the competitive edge off. He said it was a needed departure from tennis, physically and mentally, before competing in Atlanta in the middle of July. Previously without an agent, Baker also signed with Octagon Tennis.
"It was a lot of fun," Baker said. "It probably wasn't the best prep for Atlanta, but at the same time you have to have some down time after you've played so many weeks in a row.
"It helped to sink in [what happened in Europe], but I still don't have a personality that allows me to get too high on those kind of things. I'm competitive so I'm always looking to do bigger and better, but I definitely did have a few days after Wimbledon where it was time to celebrate."
Four of the five losses, including one at a Challenger in California, came to players outside the top 100, yet as Baker pointed out, he wasn't "crushed" in any of them. Three went to three sets, he fell to his occasional doubles partner, Rajeev Ram, 7-6 (3), 7-5 in Los Angeles, and Bernard Tomic beat Baker 6-4, 6-3 in Cincinnati.
Against Tomic, an ever-unpredictable Aussie, Baker had chance after chance to win the opening set. Tomic maximized his opportunities while Baker did not. Baker registered his lone victory of the U.S. Open Series a round earlier in Cincinnati, eliminating the same man who ended his journey at Wimbledon, Philipp Kohlschreiber.
His backhand, Baker's most dangerous shot off the ground, and serve haven't been as productive as he would like.
"I'm just working on a few tweaks here and there," said Baker, who will make his first appearance at the U.S. Open in seven years. "Nothing serious. Not trying to change anything."
Temporarily helping Baker make those tweaks is Jim Madrigal, the head coach of tennis at Belmont University in Nashville, where Baker worked as an assistant when he was off the pro tour. Madrigal will be in Baker's corner through the U.S. Open.
Baker intends to sort out his coaching situation when his tournament ends. He's already hired a physio, Ryan Harber, who he shares with Ram.
"There's definitely a few names out there, and I'm going to make some calls and see what I think is going to make the best fit," Baker said.
Yes, Baker, despite all his physical setbacks, is thinking slightly longer term. But when he says he'll take it "week-by-week," in his case because of his injury woes, it doesn't come across as a cliché.
"I'm not trying to make it a sprint by any means, but I'm still taking it week by week," he said. "I think I'll take it week by week for my entire career, as far as not trying to get ahead of myself and listening to my body. But I am feeling good enough to where I'm very hopeful. I'm planning on playing for a while out here."
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