Baker's run is only the beginning
WIMBLEDON, England -- Brian Baker waited most of the past six years to make a comeback.
If it wasn't his hips that troubled him, it was his elbow: He's one of the few tennis players who has undergone Tommy John surgery. All told, Baker, a right-hander, likely has spent more time in the operating room than a doctor on "ER."
Being pushed back, then, by a day at Wimbledon because of rain, from Monday to Tuesday, didn't bother him much. A minor nuisance.
Instead, it was an inspired Philipp Kohlschreiber who was the main culprit, winning their fourth-round match 6-1, 7-6 (4), 6-3 to prevent Baker from continuing his dream sequence in Europe.
Baker never came to grips with Kohlschreiber's serve, and unusually for the German, he remained focused throughout. Losing nine of the first 10 points of the encounter set the tone for Baker, and when he failed to convert a break chance at 1-3 in the first set following an hour's rain delay, the rest of the opener flew by.
Baker didn't face a break point in the second set and missed two of his own in the middle of the set, necessitating a tiebreak. At 4-4 and having cruised on his serve, Kohlschreiber earned a fortunate mini-break when his defensive lob on the dead run caught the line.
When Kohlschreiber took a nasty spill on his first match point, one couldn't help but wonder if all the wrong thrust upon Baker was about to be reversed. Would Kohlschreiber get up? If not, call it a twist of fate.
But Kohlschreiber continued to reach a first Grand Slam quarterfinal on his 33rd attempt. Perseverance paid off for Kohlschreiber, and he's in rarefied air. As for Baker, his ranking, from outside the top 450 at the beginning of the year, is expected to rise to within the top 80 next week. But even climbing more than 300 spots doesn't do justice for all that Baker has done.
Baker took flight starting in May. He qualified for a clay-court tournament in Nice, France -- impressive enough given that American players struggle on dirt -- and proceeded to reach the final.
"This time, I've actually knocked on the door, gotten an answer, and gone through the door," Baker told reporters. "It's been a lot of fun these last two months, and I'm definitely not satisfied. Like today, I was pretty frustrated after the match. I'm looking forward to doing bigger and better things."
Baker, 27, didn't enlist the help of the USTA during his comeback, which, according to Patrick McEnroe, made it even more impressive. McEnroe recalls hearing Baker's name about this time 12 months ago, when he competed at a Futures tournament, the third step on the tennis ladder in the U.S. without a ranking.
"Sure enough, he just kept playing in these Futures and Challengers and continuing to work his way up," said McEnroe, general manager of the USTA's player development program and an ESPN analyst.
"He never asked for any wild cards or any help. We had one of our coaches at a lot of those tournaments with younger players, and he just kept calling me and sending messages saying, 'Brian is playing unbelievable, and he's a top 50 player if he can stay healthy.' That was obviously the biggest thing."
Baker's healthy now, so indeed, as one chapter closed on another gloomy day at the All England Club, another is set to be written. Baker is far from a one-hit wonder, and plenty know it.
Now, Baker says, he's in discussion with interested parties and expects to make a decision about representation in the next two or three days. He plans to hire a physiotherapist in the summer, and who knows whether a coach will be on the way, too.
He hasn't decided if he'll participate at the Hall of Fame grass-court tournament in Newport, R.I., next week. His body might need resting. Baker intends to play on hard courts in Atlanta and Los Angeles.
"When I go back home and start playing the tournaments, the approach will be the same," Baker said. "I'm going to train the same way. I'm going to probably practice the same way. But on the court you believe in yourself a bit more. You know you've done it in the past."
If Baker's body cooperates, it's not a stretch to say Baker might make some noise at the last major of the year, the U.S. Open.
"I'm just happily impressed to see somebody just do it on their own," McEnroe said. "It basically proves a point in tennis that if you're good enough, nobody can stop you. Here's a guy that just went out there and let his racket do the talking."
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