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Brian Baker: The Comeback Kid

DEUCE US Open 2012

Baker© Getty ImagesBrian Baker has impressed the tennis world with his return to the ATP World Tour following six years on the sidelines.

After a catalogue of serious injuries took the American away from competitive tennis for six years, Brian Baker is now fit and ready to embrace his time on tour. 

You’ve read the headlines. You’ve followed his story. Brian Baker could have waved goodbye to his pro career, but asked: What if? After five different surgeries and six years on the sidelines he battled back in 2012, earning a Roland Garros wild card, reaching his first ATP World Tour final in Nice and the Wimbledon fourth round – all in a two-month span.

Now 27 years of age, Baker is making the most of a dream long put on hold, but is wary of pushing his body too far, too soon. “I feel like I did lose six years of my career, but I’m not trying to just rush back to make up for lost time,” he says. “I’m still going to pick and choose the events I play, listen to my body and, don’t get me wrong, I want to come back and do well and take advantage of the time I do have left. I honestly don’t know how long I’ll be able to play, hopefully four or five more years, but I’m definitely not the one to take anything for granted these days.”

“We had fights every day on the court. I’m sure our neighbours hated us”

Having missed out on so much tennis, it’s ironic to think that the American once had to be dragged onto the court against his will. With Baker just starting to walk, his father, Steve, built a tennis court in the backyard of their Nashville home. It “consumed the backyard”, remembers older brother Art. The Baker’s three children were soon consumed by the sport.

Brian recalls that Art and his sister, Kathryn, would “dress me up in long pants because I used to dive for a lot of balls and I would skin my knees and my elbows. So I’d be in long pants and long shirt in the summer. I think I was about four or five years old at that time.”

Brian naturally became Art’s go-to guy for hitting partner, but getting him out on the court was a terrific challenge in itself. “I was literally dragging him out there with his racquet,” recounts Art. “I always tried to keep him out on the court for a longer period of time than he wanted to as well, at least initially, just because being [three years] older, my interests were a little bit more than his.”

BakerAnd the battles didn’t end there. Once they were actually out on the court, each of the Baker boys wanted to be the best. Their competitive drive was all-consuming. “We didn’t always treat each other very well when we were out there just because we both wanted to win. Who wants to lose to your younger or older brother?” explains Art. Brian adds, “My brother and I had fights every day on the court in our backyard. I’m sure my neighbors hated us.”

These days, Brian is thankful for his brother’s persistence and their sibling rivalry, which have made him the player he is today. “I think my brother, actually, was a big reason for my success. I loved tennis basically my whole life, but I think he even liked it more. And a lot of the days that I didn’t really want to get out there and play, he would get me out there and make me play. I owe a lot of my competitive drive to him.”

Though he was away at medical school in Virginia, Art could empathise with his younger brother when he was dealt injury blow after injury blow following what should have been a breakthrough win against Gaston Gaudio at the 2005 US Open.

“It was tough to watch him have his setbacks, at the same time, familiar to me on a much smaller scale,” says Art, who had wrist and elbow surgeries that impacted his collegiate career at Furman University. “He was 20 when he had his first surgery as a pro player, and it was tough to watch him go through a lot of those same things on the larger scale, to feel like he had enough game to play pro tennis but not be able to do it.”

“Everybody in town knew who Brian was, what his gift was”

Brian, in fact, had gotten his first taste of what it was like to sit out of competition in his early teens – before the three different hip surgeries, a sports hernia and reconstructive surgery on his elbow. He missed a year due to osteochondritis on the left femur in his kneecap, requiring surgery to shave down bad bone and take bone chips from his hip. “I was too young and too naïve to really know anything at that time,” he says. “They said I fell when I was younger and playing tennis probably kept it from healing. I think I felt that it was a fluke and I fixed it and it’s fine. It wasn’t a wakeup call for me. Maybe it should’ve been, but it wasn’t.”

Both times, Nashville-based coach Jim Madrigal would be the man he turned to. Baker first began working with Madrigal when he was 15, unsure what his level would be post-surgery. Years later, uncertain if and when he would physically be ready to return to the tour, he once again called up Madrigal – the head coach at Belmont University – and asked if he could be an assistant tennis coach while working towards a degree in business and finance.

BakerMadrigal had long been aware of Baker’s potential, even before the pair started working together. “I think he got to the final or won the [under-]12 Southerns or something when he was eight,” he says. “Ridiculous, coming from a kid that was so young. He was on a path to being special – how special you never know – but he was just dominating older age divisions at such a young age. Everybody in town knew who Brian was, what his gift was, how he was able to understand the game with his hand-eye coordination and just ability to play. He kind of just had crazy, freakish skills from a young age.”

This year, the whole tennis world would understand just how special Baker was. Back home in Nashville, a 12 year old sharing his clothing sponsor, Athletic DNA, followed his run at Open de Nice Côte d’Azur with particular interest. When Madrigal asked him if he wanted to pick the colour of shirt Baker wore for his next match, the incredulous junior looked at him with wide eyes a couple times before finally requesting green.

Madrigal had been aware that Baker had won 14 straight matches wearing a blue shirt, and wondered if he might be superstitious. “I asked, ‘Would you mind wearing green?’ He said, ‘I’ve been winning with blue.’ So I said, ‘You can do whatever you want.’” When Madrigal tuned in for his match against Nikolay Davydenko, Baker was wearing green. He lost the first set in the tie-break, but came back to win the next two, securing his place in the final in his first ATP World Tour appearance since 2005.

“He’s always looking out for somebody else,” says Madrigal. “When we sign up for practice courts, he’ll want to make sure he can give them a good practice as opposed to wanting to get a good practice for himself. He’s just thoughtful; just a good guy and real down to earth. He’s just a humble guy who happens to do something really well.”

While his success took many by surprise, long-time friend Rajeev Ram was among the few who was not.

“He was on a path to being special”

“I’m absolutely not surprised in the least bit. Happy that he’s healthy, but not surprised he’s winning if he is healthy,” says Ram, who invited Baker up to his home in Indianapolis last December for a four-day hitting session. “He’s always had the game. It’s a matter of if he can stay healthy long enough. It was never a question if he could be a Top 100, Top 50 player. It was never a question about his tennis ability.”

Madrigal also was not surprised at Brian’s success, but more that the game “didn’t pass him by” during his many years away. “These other players have similar talent, and they’ve had healthy bodies and they’ve been able to compete and train and do all the things you need to do to prepare yourself to play at that level. So for him to be able to come in and make an impact with this little preparation, honestly, it’s pretty surprising,” he admits.

American Andy Roddick praised Brian’s game during Wimbledon and stated that it would be “interesting” to see what Brian could do going forward. “He certainly doesn’t seem to have many weaknesses as far as forehands, backhands, serves, volleys. He seems pretty complete,” he said. “It’s a matter of doing what he’s done over the past two or three months for three or four years straight. That’s harder to predict.”

Baker The tour, according to Madrigal, is full of peaks and valleys. After the highs of Europe, Brian entered a lull upon his return to the United States. He barely had time to process everything that had happened, and after squeezing in a celebratory dinner with a dozen of his friends out at the Tavern in Nashville, he was back on the road again for the summer hard-court swing. In contrast to his instantaneous success in Europe, the stretch began with losses in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and then at an ATP Challenger Tour event in Aptos.

Then, on a Monday afternoon in Cincinnati, Brian finally got that hard-court win he was looking for – against a Top 20 player at an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament, no less. In a match his brother Art would tape and watch later that night when he finished work, leaving his cell phone off during the day to avoid spoilers, Brian claimed a 7-6(7), 7-6(3) win over World No. 17 Philipp Kohlschreiber, the same player who had defeated him in the Wimbledon fourth round.

Such was the relief that Madrigal cried when Brian won. “I felt that was a win for both of us. It was a win for myself, a win for his trainer Ryan Harber; we’ve done everything to keep him healthy and to give him a chance to be able to go out there and compete against these guys. We were out there for several weeks and hadn’t won any. By the time we got to Cincinnati and we won that match against a Top 20 guy on Stadium Court in front of all those people, it was just overwhelming emotion.”

They determined that it was the best win of Brian’s career – better than his win against Gael Monfils during his Nice final run and against Gaudio at the US Open. 

Brian now returns to Flushing Meadows for the first time in seven years by virtue of his own South African Airways ATP Ranking. He is currently a career-high World No. 70.

“It was never a question about his tennis ability”

While players and coaches may have had time to analyse his game in the two months since Wimbledon, Brian isn’t concerned. “People will definitely figure out how you like to play and they’ll make adjustments, but I feel like when I’m playing well, I don’t really care if they know what I’m going to do. As long as I execute, it’ll be effective,” he says. “Things are going to get tougher just because guys are going to respect you, they’re going to give you their best game instead of going out there thinking maybe things are going to be easier. So I’ll definitely have to pick up my game, but I feel like even if they change their strategies I can still be effective while playing well.”

There’s no telling how much higher Brian will be able to go, but for now, the focus isn’t on rankings but on the hope shared by the Baker camp and family: that he stays healthy.

“Sometimes fans will come up to him, and say, ‘Good luck, we can’t wait to see you in the Top 10,’ and he and I will look at each other and just smile, like ‘Okay, if it happens it happens,’ but it’s not really the goal,” says Madrigal. “The goal is to stay healthy and play hard and let the cards fall where they do.”

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