Battling Baker is back – after nine years and three hip operations
In his first Grand Slam since 2005, the former leading junior takes Simon to five sets
When Brian Baker reached the French Open boys' final nine years ago – he lost to Stanislas Wawrinka after beating Marcos Baghdatis and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the previous two rounds – he must have hoped it would not be long before he returned to play on the main show court in the senior tournament. Yesterday the 27-year-old from Nashville, Tennessee, finally made it.
Although his first appearance at a Grand Slam tournament for seven years ended in a battling 6-4, 6-1, 6-7, 1-6, 6-0 defeat to the world No 12, Gilles Simon, Baker's sheer presence in Paris was a reward for one of the most remarkable comebacks of modern times. Baker returned to the tournament circuit only last summer after more than six years out of the game because of a succession of injuries and five operations, including three on his hips.
"I felt like I had some unfinished business," Baker said. "It's not like I stopped tennis because I just got tired of it. It was taken away because my body wouldn't hold up. I always wanted to come back, it was just whether I could or not. When I started feeling good enough to give it a go, I wanted for sure to do that. I didn't want to look back and wish I had given it one more shot."
Baker played his first senior tournament in 2002 and broke into the world's top 200 in 2004. By 2005, however, his body was starting to break down.
"In November 2005 I had my first left hip surgery," he recalled. "Then in June or July 2006, I had a sports hernia surgery. I didn't actually have surgery in 2007. In 2008 I had three surgeries. In February, I had ulnar collateral ligament surgery on my right elbow. Then in April I had my left hip done again. Then I had my right hip done. I think it was in June. No more since then. It's been good."
By last summer, when he was playing in the Middle Tennessee Tennis League alongside his father and uncle, Baker felt fit enough to compete regularly again. He has already climbed from No 456 in the world rankings this year to No 141.
His performances on clay in the United States earned him a wild card into the French Open and last week he played his first tournament on the main tour for seven years in Nice. Remarkably, he won three rounds in qualifying and then beat four top 100 players before losing to Nicolas Almagro in the final.
"I never reached the point where I said I was ready to throw in the towel," Baker said last night. "You have to be realistic. I wasn't going to keep on having major surgeries to try to continue my career. Fortunately I have been able to start feeling better as of 2011 and here I am now."
For the last two weeks Baker has been reacquainting himself with players he has not seen for 10 years. Novak Djokovic remembers him. "He was one of the best, if not the best, juniors in the world," the world No 1 said. "I remember he won the Orange Bowl when I played. He's a very, very talented player."
Baker enjoyed a straight-sets victory here in the first round over Xavier Malisse and the American said he was "not super-surprised". He explained: "I always knew that I hit the ball well. I've always had confidence in my ability. It's just whether I've been able to put in the training hours and fitness hours off the court to be able to play match in, match out."
Baker, who will be a strong candidate for a Wimbledon wild card, said it had been "pretty cool" to walk on to Court Philippe Chatrier. His game was a pleasing combination of aggressive hitting and delightful touches. Simon is very quick, but the Frenchman was regularly caught out by Baker's drop shots. When Baker levelled the match by recovering from two sets down, an upset seemed on the cards, but the American finally ran out of steam. He will surely be back, however – and this time he should not have to wait for nine years.
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