- Ravi Ubha, Tennis
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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.
"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."