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Steve Flink: Americans Fish and Baker Depart Triumphantly

7/3/2012 5:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON—The last two American men left in the draw departed on a damp and often rainy day at the world’s preeminent tennis tournament, as both Mardy Fish and Brian Baker bowed out in the round of 16. Fish was beaten by the charismatic Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in four sets, and Baker was ousted in straight sets by the gifted German Philipp Kohlschreiber in a straight set encounter. They survived to see the light of the second week, but now they are gone, headed into the American hard court summer season, looking to see what they can accomplish both up to and through the U.S. Open. To be sure, both U.S. men would have liked to have lasted longer here. They were capable of setting up a quarterfinal appointment against each other, and will be disappointed that did not happen.

And yet, both Americans took something of real value from this event, something that will carry them into the upcoming tournaments back home with vitality and brio. Let’s start with Baker, who has become one of the year’s most surprising achievers. Along with many other tennis journalists, I have written about Baker’s extraordinary comeback from his litany of surgeries over the course of his career. He was the world’s second ranked junior at one stage in 2003, and made it to the final of the French Open junior event that season after capturing the Orange Bowl at the end of the previous year. Baker seemed certain then to establish himself as a front line player, and seemed like someone who could break into the top thirty in the world, and perhaps climb even higher.

But misfortune struck him in a serious way.  He turned pro, played on briefly as a pro, and defeated Gaston Gaudio—the 2004 French Open champion—in the first round of the U.S. Open. But his body betrayed him, and between 2005 and 2008 he had five surgeries to repair the damage. Three of those procedures were on his hips. Once, he had Tommy John surgery, and on another occasion the surgery was less serious. Baker did not drown himself in a sea of self-pity. He did not give up. He would not stop dreaming of returning as a tennis player.

He became an assistant coach at Belmont University, where he was a student as well. Baker played five tournaments a year ago and finished the season at No. 456 in the world on the ATP computer. This year, his progress continued. He first rose to a position not too far behind No. 200 in the world after winning a USTA Pro Circuit Futures tournament in Savannah, Georgia. He was able to earn a wildcard by virtue of that triumph into the French Open. The week before, he travelled to Nice, and went all the way to the final. At Roland Garros, Baker demonstrated emphatically that his wildcard was well deserved. He advanced to the second round before bowing in five sets to Gilles Simon, accounting for Xavier Malisse in the first round.

Many believed he deserved a wildcard into Wimbledon, but he did not get it. But the unwavering Baker made it through the qualifying rounds, claimed a place for himself in the main draw, and then celebrated the finest Grand Slam event of his career. Baker was terrific on the lawns here at the All England Club, advertising his well-rounded game convincingly, casting aside Rui Machado of Portugal in straight sets, removing the experienced left-hander Jarkko Nieminen of Finland 6-0, 6-2, 6-4, and then ousting the demonstrative Frenchman Benoit Paire in four sets. Today, Baker’s run was abruptly ended by Kohlschreiber, who has been on a good roll lately on the grass, including the recording of a good win over Nadal in Halle. Baker simply never had a chance to impose his strategic acumen and his sound craftsmanship. He could not contain Kohlschreiber, who owns one of the sport’s most fluid and effective one-handed topspin backhands.

Kohlschreiber was victorious 6-1, 7-6 (4), 6-3 in one hour and 55 minutes. Baker was never allowed—with a brief exception during the second set—to assert himself in any kind of productive way. Yet there was no disgrace in his defeat—not in the least. But he was fittingly upbeat when it was over. “It’s been an unbelievable run,” he said. “I can’t be too upset about that, even though as a competitor I’m definitely pretty frustrated right now, to get that far and not feel I played my best match. But that stuff happens. Hopefully I’ll learn from it and have more opportunities.”

Clearly, he will. As Baker said, “I was just hoping to continue the momentum from the French, which I obviously did. I think when I go onto the court I’m expecting to at least play good tennis and expect to win when I walk on the court…. It’s been a lot of fun these last two months, and I’m definitely not satisfied. I’m looking forward to doing bigger and better things.”

It will be fun to watch Baker across the summer on the hard courts. He will move up somewhere near No. 80 in the world after Wimbledon, and by the time he reaches the U.S. Open he may well be among the top 50. Now, let’s turn our attention back to Fish. Here he was, back in his first tournament since Houston at the start of the clay court circuit in April. He had lost there with inexplicable ease to Michael Russell in the opening round. He later discovered he had a deeply serious heart problem. His heartbeat would race out of control from time to time, never with any forewarning.

He had a medical procedure on May 23 to correct the problem. Wimbledon was his first tournament since that procedure. He had reached the quarterfinals here a year ago before losing to Rafael Nadal, and surely believed that winning even one match here on the lawns in 2012 would be a positive development and a source of confidence. Fish did much better than that, toppling Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo in the first round, cutting down James Ward of Great Britain in the second round, and then defeating the capable and inventive David Goffin in the third round. Ward took Fish to five arduous sets, and that contest undoubtedly took a lot out of the 30-year-old American.

The fact remains that Fish played some exceptionally good tennis against Tsonga. Fish won the first set on Monday before rain intervened. He then returned today and fell behind 4-1 in the second set before another rain delay. Fish managed to take that set into a tie-break. Had he succeeded there, Fish would have been poised to get a morale boosting victory over a chief rival. But the Frenchman served brilliantly in the tie-break. From 1-2 down in that sequence, Tsonga aced Fish down the T in the deuce court and followed with an ace down the T in the ad court. The Frenchman then lunged for a backhand volley winner to make it 4-2 before Fish took the seventh point with a superbly packaged serve-and-volley combination.

Tsonga soon extended his lead to 5-3, and followed with another ace down the T for 6-3. Two points later, Tsonga sealed the set with some more aggressive play. It was one set all.

Serving in the opening game of the third set at break point down, Fish pulled a forehand wide off a down the middle return from Tsonga. Tsonga made that break count, holding through the rest of the set. At 5-4, he held gamely from 15-40 down, moving out in front two sets to one. Tsonga maintained his momentum. He was sharp and authoritative off the ground, eager and opportunistic, strikingly athletic and remarkably composed. Tsonga broke Fish in the third game of the fourth set with a backhand down the line pass that was too much for the American to handle. But, with Fish serving at 2-4, and rain dampening the court, play was halted again.

Tsonga resumed his mastery of the match. Serving for a place in the quarterfinals at 5-4 in the fourth set, he surged to 40-15 and closed it out appropriately with an ace wide in the deuce court. Tsonga had won 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-4 with a polished and unrelenting performance. The view here is that he will stop Kohlschreiber and reach his second straight Wimbledon semifinal.

Meanwhile, Baker and Fish should be proud of how they fared here—very proud. Fish could easily have lost in the first or second round after such a long layoff and such a serious health issue. He was dangerously short of match play. But he had a first rate tournament, and he will surely use his showing here so propel himself into the summer. Fish is a perennially accomplished hard court player, and a man who enjoys performing in front of American audiences who invariably lend him an effusive brand of support. He will make his presence known in places like Cincinnati and Canada. He just might surprise a few of the game’s standouts during that span.

As for Brian Baker, he will quietly and methodically reintroduce himself to the fans in his country. He will show them what a fine match player he is. He has every reason to believe he is on his way to the top 25 or 30 in the world, and he will surely prosper in July and August back home. Fish and Baker have departed from the world’s premier tournament, both beaten in the round of 16, each leaving a good impression on tennis followers here in Great Britain. Yet they need not be ashamed. They should hold their heads high. They must realize that success is defined differently, depending upon time and circumstances. They acquitted themselves well here. I tip my hat to Brian Baker and Mardy Fish.

Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He was a columnist and editor for World Tennis Magazine from 1974-91. Starting in 1992, he was a senior correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine. During the 1970's and 1980's he served as a statistician for NBC, CBS and ABC on their tennis telecasts. Since 1982 he has been covering Wimbledon and the French Open for CBS radio. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.