Jamie Baker and Andy Murray: Friends reunited at the top
Jamie Baker has overcome a series of setbacks to make Australian Open with oldest buddy Andy Murray, writes Paul Newman
They have been friends for 20 years, they spent their boyhoods travelling together to tournaments across the country, and this week they will be Britain's lone representatives in the men's singles at the Australian Open.
Andy Murray's delight at Jamie Baker's achievement in qualifying for the year's opening Grand Slam tournament was evident here on Saturday night. At every break during a round of television interviews, Murray checked on the score in Baker's final qualifying match and punched the air in delight when told his compatriot had beaten the American Donald Young. Baker will face the Czech Republic's Lukas Rosol, who famously beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon last summer, in the first round tomorrow.
If ever there was a player who shared Murray's dedication it is Baker, even if the respective talents of the two men are demonstrated less by their national rankings (they are British No 1 and No 2) than by their world rankings (No 3 and No 246).
Baker has grown used to looking up to Murray, despite being one year older. "I remember going to one of my first under-10 tournaments at the Dunblane tennis club," Baker said. "We were playing in a round-robin. He beat me 6-0. It was embarrassing."
Not that Baker remembers his friend as a particularly accomplished player at that age. "He had a double-handed forehand back then, up until he was about 12 or 13," the 26-year-old Glaswegian said. "All he did was hit moonballs. Everyone was saying, 'This guy has got no chance, he can't do anything with that.' And obviously his behaviour wasn't the best back then. If there was talent identification at the time it would have been tough for him."
Baker added: "We've known each other since I was about six years old. In terms of a friendship he's perhaps the only person in my life who I have known for that long. No matter what he does, there are no secrets between us. I know everything about him and vice versa. It's nice in a crazy tennis world to have someone like that."
Their tennis journey may have started on the same roads, but while Murray has been speeding down the super highways for the last five years Baker has been down many a dead end. Although he has never had his friend's outstanding talent, Baker has also been short on luck. Injuries have repeatedly halted his progress, while in 2008 he was told he was unlikely to play competitive tennis again after being diagnosed with a life-threatening blood condition.
Baker suffered from depression as he tried to rebuild his career, but, as is his wont, he worked tirelessly to maximise his talent. He reached a career-high No 186 in the world rankings last summer, when he kept Andy Roddick on court for more than three hours in a hard-fought match at Wimbledon, and might have had an even better year but for stomach surgery which kept him out of the game for more than two months.
The prize-money of $Aus27,600 (about £18,000) Baker is guaranteed for reaching the first round here will be a welcome bonus for a player with average earnings of about £22,000 a year since he made his first steps on the senior tour 10 years ago.
As someone who made the gruelling journey Down Under on an economy ticket he also welcomed the cheque for $Aus1,000 (about £650) that Tennis Australia has given to each player to help with their travel costs. "I couldn't believe they gave it to everyone," he added. "They gave Andy a cheque for a thousand dollars. What's he going to do with that? Have lunch at Nobu?"
Having checked out of his original budget hotel before his final match in qualifying, Baker spent Saturday in the Hyatt, though he was not planning to stay for long. "I'll be looking online to see if I can get a cheaper place," he said. "I can afford to stay there, but I'm saving for a house so I don't want to spend my money on a slightly nicer hotel."
Having friends in high places has its practical benefits. Murray, who has great respect for Baker's work ethic, once again invited him to join his team at their Florida training camp last month.
Baker welcomed the chance to witness Murray's ability at close hand. "He is right at the top, one of the best three in the world, and to see what he does on a daily basis has been great," Baker said. "Just hitting balls with him is so eye-opening.
"At times I will come off the court and say, 'I just cannot understand how he has got that good. I cannot relate to what he is doing with the ball compared to how hard I'm trying to do similar things. I can't relate to it. We're doing all our training sessions together and he isn't putting any more into it than I am'."
He added: "We train differently but if we went up against each other he'd probably beat me in everything. Look at him, he's like a tank. The difference is that he has had six or seven years of a regular diet of that volume of training. When he first started working with Jez [Green] and Matt [Little] he was still training hard, so he's got to a point now where he can cope with anything which is thrown at him. When he first started with them his body wasn't in that position."
Baker said Murray had been very supportive through his toughest times and added: "If I have anything on my mind or I want to ask him anything about my game, how to improve, he's there and it's on tap."
Although Baker has never won a main draw match at a Grand Slam tournament, this is the second time he has qualified here. Five years ago he pushed Ivo Karlovic, then the world No 24, to four tough sets. On current form he might fancy his chances against Rosol, who has done little since his stunning victory over Nadal last summer.
Baker said that winning tomorrow would make a "massive difference" to his year. "It would be huge ranking points and huge money and would set me up for the tougher schedule I aim to play this year," he said. "It boosts my position to get into these tournaments. When I got to this stage in 2008 I felt I played my best match at a Slam apart from the Roddick match.
"I felt so much better because I felt I had earned my place in the draw. I qualified, I am here, no one has given it to me. I lack confidence sometimes, but I feel better if I have qualified on my own right. I don't owe anyone a good performance. I feel like I am good enough to be here."
Baker said that the example of another friend, Jonny Marray, who won the Wimbledon doubles title at the age of 31 last summer in partnership with Frederik Nielsen, showed the importance of perseverance.
"He shows up for work every day, does the right things and is a true pro," Baker said. "Most of us are doing that, but it's hard to relate to that. Will we ever see anything like that again? It gives us all hope though. I feel I always harp on about the depth of men's tennis and how many good players there are of a very high level. The difference between winning and losing matches between players whose rankings are at different ends of the scale is so, so small."
Melbourne mates: Britain's pair in men's singles
Turned pro 2004
World ranking 246
Career-high ranking 186
Career prize-money $348,000 (£216,000)
ATP titles 0
Grand Slam matches won 0
Grand Slam matches lost 6
Grand Slam best 1st round Wimbledon 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012 and Australian Open 2008
Turned pro 2005
World ranking 3
Career-high ranking 2
Career prize-money $24.9m (£15.4m)
ATP titles 25
Grand Slam matches won 100
Grand Slam matches lost 32
Grand Slam best Won US Open 2012
Australian Open best Finalist, 2010 & 2011
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