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Steve Flink: Brian Baker Starts Over

5/7/2012 6:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

In the game of tennis—as is the case in the larger game of life—second chances and comebacks are not always attainable. When athletes are dealt the roughest of hands—forced to the sidelines by long lasting and debilitating injuries, sent before surgeons to confront maladies that could be career threatening, made to face hard realities that can be deeply jarring to their psyches—they often find that the will to continue down the rigorous path of competition is sharply or even completely diminished. But nothing is more inspiring in the world of sports as witnessing an extraordinary individual somehow overcoming massive obstacles and refashioning a career that seemed well out of reach.

Such a story is causing many a close follower of professional tennis to stand up now and applaud a 27-year-old American for his tenacity, temerity and the steadfastness of his character. Brian Baker was the world’s No. 2 ranked junior back in 2003. He won the prestigious Orange Bowl 18-and-under in 2002, and then got to the final of the French Open junior event in 2003, toppling Marcos Baghdatis and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga before losing to Stanislas Wawrinka. During that impressive campaign Baker also went to the quarterfinals of the Wimbledon and U.S. Open junior tournaments, upending Gael Monfils in the latter event.  On the basis of that evidence, Baker was clearly on his way to lofty places in the world of tennis.

After his stellar junior days were over, Baker turned professional. He played into the 2005 season, knocking out No. 9 seed Gaston Gaudio in the opening round of the U.S. Open that year. But his body began breaking down regularly. Between 2005 and 2008, Baker had surgery no fewer than five times: thrice on his hips. Once, he had Tommy John surgery, and on another occasion he had a less serious surgery. A lesser man would have lost hope and heart, found another goal in life, and surrendered the goal of a career as tennis player. Baker, however, was not to be dispelled of his dreams.

After taking classes as a student and also coaching the tennis team at Belmont University in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee for a few years, the determined Baker played five tournaments in 2011 and finished the year at No. 456 in the world on the ATP computer. That was a considerable feat after such a long hiatus, but this season he has surged to No. 216 after winning a USTA Pro Circuit Futures tournament in Savannah, Georgia. The USTA gave the American players who did not have the status to get straight into Roland Garros an opportunity to compete in both Savannah and in Sarasota, Florida. These two events enabled the players to earn points in a bid to secure a wildcard into the French Open.

Sam Querrey was victorious in Sarasota, garnering 100 points in the process. But it turned out his ranking was high enough to get him directly into the main draw at Roland Garros. This meant that Baker—with 88 points—was the deserving recipient of the wildcard. We spoke last week on the telephone, and Baker’s pride in earning the right to compete in the main draw at Roland Garros was unmistakable.

“It is definitely an exciting time for me,” he said. “I didn’t expect to be playing a Grand Slam so fast, but part of the reason I came back was to get back to the Grand Slams and try to reach the top 100 in the world. I am really looking forward to playing the French in a couple of weeks.”

Making the achievement of getting into the French Open even more rewarding for Baker was the fact that he had to earn it through his play in Sarasota and Savannah. Querrey ousted him in a three set encounter at Sarasota, but in Savannah Baker was unstoppable, sweeping through the qualifying before getting into the main draw and casting aside all of his rivals in that relatively difficult field.

“Going into those two weeks, “ he recollects, “ I just wasn’t putting pressure on myself, like ‘Hey, if you do well you can get the French wildcard.’ It was more about taking care of business, doing the best that I can and seeing what would happen. In Savannah I knew going into the semis that if I won that match I could get the wildcard. I was really pleased how I was able to perform under those circumstances. I played Blake Strode. If Ryan Sweeting had won earlier in the day, I would have had to beat him in the final but since he lost I knew the winner of my semi with Strode would have enough points that no one could pass him. Any time you win a tournament, it is great, but the added bonus of getting a wildcard for the French made it that much more special.”

Heading into the $50,000 event in Savannah, Baker realized he would need to lift his game to earn the required points it would take to earn the wildcard. He lost early to Querrey in the $100,000 tournament at Sarasota, but his performance against his compatriot was not undistinguished. As Baker recollects, “Maybe if I had not had to play Sam so early in the tournament, I might have been able to do better in another portion of the draw. The match with Querrey was encouraging because I knew I was playing well, but discouraging because I wasn’t able to execute better in the third set. That just comes from not being in those situations as much. When you take off so much time you don’t forget how to play tennis but sometimes you do forget how to compete at your best in difficult situations. But I feel like I was able to learn from that and then I played great in Savannah.”

Baker had dropped the first set of his clash with Querrey in Sarasota, but then came on strong. “He got me pretty good in the first set,” Baker recalls. “But I won the second set 6-1 and was up a break in the third, serving at 1-0 with a game point for 2-0. I felt like I didn’t play my best tennis at crunch time and Sam won that last set 6-3. I had break points in the final game of the match but he played better than I did on the biggest points.”

How surprised is Baker by the swiftness of his climb from No. 456 to his current status not far outside the top 200? “I have always been confident in my ability as long as I can stay healthy, “he responds. “ I only played five tournaments last year so I actually did pretty well to make it to No. 456. I have been able to play a normal schedule this year and that has helped a lot. I have definitely improved as the year has gone on. I have gotten fitter and played more matches and that helps your confidence and your game. It has been an exciting run. Winning a tournament like I did in Savannah is going to move you up in the rankings quickly.”

As Baker answered my questions, I was impressed by his self-conviction. And yet, he never sounded the least bit cocky. “I have always felt I hit the ball well enough, “he said, “but it was just a question of whether I could be fit enough. I knew coming back last year that I was still hitting the ball okay. It was just a matter of if my body could last and hold up through playing five matches—or eight matches when you include the qualies—in a week. And then you need to be ready to play the next week. I don’t know if I would have expected to be ranked where I am now after only a couple of months this year, but I have always believed in my ability.”

That Baker is even in a position to be achieving on a significant scale is remarkable in many ways. I wondered if he felt there was a low point during his multitude of surgeries, a moment when his pessimism might have destroyed his morale. He responded, “I don’t know if I could pinpoint one low point. There were several low points. Each time you have a surgery, it is not a positive. You definitely have some doubts. Anyone who has had that many surgeries has to be realistic and understand you might not every get back to where you were. You realize you might not play pro again. But I was able to stay as positive as I could, and did not ever give up on the chance of coming back. I was still able to hit and to practice a lot in those years, just not on the same level as playing tournaments. I was really blessed. By last summer I was feeling better and able to give it a good go.”

Asked to assess which of the five surgeries was most daunting, Baker replied, “I would say the first hip surgery. I had three of those, and each one was never a sure thing. Two were on my left hip and one was on the right. I know Gustavo Kuerten and Magnus Norman and guys like that never really came back the same out of that. Those are serious surgeries especially for tennis players, because we use our hips so much. But the Tommy John surgery was always going to require the longest recovery period. It takes a long time to heal from that. They take your tendon and try to turn it into a ligament. So I don’t really know which one of the surgeries was actually the most daunting, but definitely the elbow and three hip surgeries were all very serious.”

Probably one of the chief reasons why Baker persevered through such a draining and uncertain process was his temperament. He refused to let too much negativity seep into his system. “You have to make a choice, “he says. “ You have to accept that you can’t control everything, so you only worry about the things you can control. That is a hard thing to do. I went to school at Belmont and was an assistant coach. Being a normal student can take your mind off of it, but I am not going to lie: it was tough to watch tennis on television, seeing all of the guys I used to have success against in the juniors doing so well. But I learned pretty quickly not to play the guessing game. That can drive you insane. You just try to roll with it.”

And yet, being away a long while from top level competition can make resuming tournament play an arduous process. How did Baker cope with the need to rebuild his game? “It definitely is a transition period,” he answered, “but I always felt I knew how to construct points and knew how to navigate my way around a tennis match. But I think it was not a bad thing to go to Futures straight out. I proved from the beginning that I could compete and win in Futures right off the bat. I don’t think I lost a practice set for five years, but when you come back and you are down a break or serving at 4-4, 30-40, it is just different and more nerve wracking. It took me time to get comfortable with that again, but I feel I have paid my dues and am starting to feel a lot better on the court now.”

As he gradually got his bearings in tournaments, Baker recognized how much the game has changed since he established himself as one of the world’s top juniors a decade ago. “The game has definitely changed a lot,” he said. “Players are more physical and on the average the balls are a little heavier and the courts slower. It puts a heavier toll on the body and you need to be really fit to have success. Also the strings have changed and that is an even bigger deal than the racket technology. The Luxilon and all the polyester helps you to put a lot more spin on the ball so you string your rackets looser and hit out a little more freely. I still play basically the same was as I did before, even with my switch to the Luxilon string. So it is not like have not adapted with the times. I am still an aggressive baseliner with an all court game, and I am not afraid to finish off points at the net, or mix in an occasional serve-and-volley. My backhand has always been my best shot and my return has always been strength. But, yes, the game has certainly changed in some ways.”

The professional tennis world can be as cutthroat as any other business, but did the other American players stay in touch and encourage Baker when they found out what he had endured across the years? “I kept in touch with some of my good friends that I turned pro with, “he says. “ Guys like Bobby Reynolds, Amer Delic, and Rajeev Ram were all in touch. I probably did not do as well with that [communication] as I should have. I had a lot of problems but definitely I have been getting a lot of support from the guys on tour, not only the guys that I knew the best but some other players that I have seen this year at the tournaments. They are happy for me and it means a lot to have their support.”

Is Baker optimistic that his body will hold up over the next few years as he moves through his late twenties? He answers candidly, “Someone who has had as many problems as me is never going to be a hundred percent certain that things are going to hold up. I am doing everything in my power to make sure that my body does hold up and, as of now, I am feeling good. How far can I go? I don’t want to put a limit on anything. I would love to get inside the top 150 and then try to make a push toward the top 100 at the end of the year. I don’t have too many points to defend. But I know I still have a long way to go in my game. I still need to get fitter and still have things I could improve. I need to spend more time off the court working on my fitness. It takes a year or two to get in really great shape when you have been gone as long as I was. I will also be working on my serve. I am not serving poorly but I think I can make it better.”

Baker will be accompanied on his gratifying journey to Paris for the French Open by his girlfriend and his parents. He adds, “I will have some help from the USTA guys over there but I don’t have one guy travelling with me as a coach for the next few months. After Roland Garros, I am not one hundred percent sure what I will do. If I lose in the first week in Paris, I will probably play a Challenger on clay the next week and then go to the Wimbledon qualies. After Wimbledon, I will come back for the U.S. summer circuit, where I will mix some Challengers with some ATP’s. But my schedule is not set in stone yet.”

This much is certain: Brian Baker may well recover a large amount of what he lost during his surgery years. He has put himself in a position to reemerge in a serious way. No one would suggest that he is going to end up in the territory of John Isner or Mardy Fish as a player ranked inside or in the near vicinity of the top ten in the world. But Baker just might find himself among the top 75 by the end of 2012, and that would be a feat of considerable dimensions.

Here is a man who thoroughly deserves his second chance.