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Undaunted, Baker is back for another shot at the Australian Open

January 14, 2016 04:13 PM

By Andrew Eichenholz, special to USTA.com

Finally, Brian Baker was where he wanted to be. After not stepping on a tennis court for a professional match in nearly four years, the American started 2013 with a ranking good enough to make the main draws of the majors. Now, it was the second round of the 2013 Australian Open and the Tennessean led No. 20-seeded compatriot Sam Querrey by a set.

Only minutes later, a doctor was pushing him off Melbourne Park’s Court 8 in a wheelchair. Baker had sustained a right knee injury.

“I had worked so hard to get back into shape and I finally was,” said Baker. “Just to see it go away right there was probably the hardest thing.”

The disappointment was nothing new for the snake-bitten Baker. The former junior world No. 2 seemed on his way to the top of the pro game when he beat No. 9 Gaston Gaudio at the 2005 US Open. But he missed the entire 2006 season and played only three tournaments in late 2007, eventually going through a total of five major surgeries: three on his hip, one for a sports hernia and another for his elbow.

The toll of all the injuries and surgeries was an eternity away from the sport, from November 2007 until July 2011.

“I think you always are realistic and have the thoughts of, ‘What am I going to do next?’” said Baker. “Tennis isn’t going to be there forever anyway, playing. But when you’re sitting there and you keep on having surgeries, there’s definitely a thought of, ‘Is it worth it?’ And, ‘Am I even going to be able to come back from this?’”

For much of his four years away from the game, Baker stayed in touch with the sport, serving as an assistant coach for the men’s tennis team at Belmont University in Tennessee and working on his business administration bachelor’s degree (which he received in May).

Eventually, his body healed, and with the desire still there, Baker gave the tour another shot. The right-hander started on the USTA Pro Circuit, playing 14 tournaments in 2011 and 2012 on the Futures and Challenger tours while also entering into qualifying at one ATP stop, in Memphis, Tenn. In winning 43 matches, he earned just $22,275.

What he did earn in the process, though, was a wild card into the 2012 French Open, secured through his results on the USTA Pro Circuit. (The USTA awards one wild card to the French Open as part of a reciprocal arrangement with the French Tennis Federation.). In Paris, he won his first Grand Slam match, and he followed that up by reaching the round of 16 at Wimbledon as a qualifier.

Despite all the adversity, things were looking up. In fact, Baker finished 2012 at No. 61 in the world, fifth-best among American men.

“I finally felt like in 2013 at the beginning you know I put in a good offseason of training,” said Baker. “I was in the best shape that I had ever been in playing out there and I had had a first few good weeks leading up to Australia.”

But again, his body betrayed him. At the time of the injury in the match against Querrey, Baker did not realize that another multi-year layoff was in the cards. Rehab after the American’s first surgery went well, but as he set out to play a Challenger in Aptos, Calif., later on in the year and eventually at the US Open, the swelling in his knee only got worse.

“Nobody knew the extent of what was wrong at that point, and then [I] found out that it kind of had morphed into like a cartilage defect on my knee,” said Baker. “After a couple of cleanup surgeries didn’t do the job, I finally bit the bullet and did the big surgery out in Colorado last December.”

And though the process kept Baker out for the entirety of 2014 and 2015, he wants another chance.

“I didn’t like how stuff ended in Australia,” said Baker. “I still wanted it bad enough to put the hours in in training. I think once you lose the mental drive to try to do it, then you’re pretty much done.”

And Baker is not done yet. He used a protected ranking to secure his spot in the main draw of the 2016 Australian Open, and starting the week of Jan. 18, he will take another shot at securing his place among the world’s best.

“Just basically trying to do the best that I can as far as giving myself every opportunity to succeed,” said Baker. “I think if I can play the Slams [in 2016], get my feet back under me and feel like I’m fit and playing good tennis, I feel like the rankings and everything else will take care of themselves.”

If anyone could persevere again, why not the 30-year-old? He is not the only one who believes in himself.

“This man is a great ball striker,” said ESPN analyst and former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. “I’m so impressed with his perseverance to keep coming back. Bottom line, Brian Baker is a tennis player – and a darn good one.”