Brian Baker qualifed for Wimbledon and won his opening match on Day 2.
© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
LONDON, England - The honeymoon isn’t over yet for comeback man Brian Baker but he’s settling in quite well to his new role of being a dependable American player.
Just months into his comeback, the native of Nashville, Tenn., scored yet another win, knocking out Rui Marchado 7-6, 6-4, 6-0 in the first round of Wimbledon. Baker, who earned the USTA wild card into Roland Garros, and reached the final of Nice the week prior, qualified for Wimbledon.
Baker had never played the tournament as a pro but he looked right a home hitting straight through his opponent on fast grass. He has been surprised at how much press he has gotten since his run but it's not that stunning considering that almost no athlete comes back after nearly six years off and multiple surgeries and has a measure of success.
"At Roland Garros I feel like I was doing [press] every day, and then it calmed down a little bit," he said. "Now here I feel like it's been kind of like a whirlwind ride. I'm enjoying it right now, looking forward to continuing to play well, and hopefully this summer I will have a good summer and get into the US Open."
While Baker is coming off the longest stint on the injured reserve list, he’s not the only American in London who has had to deal with recent physical adversity. Mardy Fish underwent a heart procedure in Los Angeles on May 23 in an attempt to resolve a form of arrhythmia and is now frequently wearing a heart monitor when he goes to sleep as it puts him mentally at ease. The 10th seed played his first match at Wimbledon, the first time he has competed since early April, besting Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-6 (1) but Fish later said he didn’t feel well and while he added it wasn't heart related, his condition is unknown.
Young American Christina McHale had the not so pleasurable experience of having to go off on Monday night tied 7-7 in the third set against Britain’s Johanna Konta, then go off again for rain down 8-7 on Tuesday. She returned and pulled off a remarkable 6-7(4), 6-2, 10-8 victory where she looked more relieved than thrilled.
McHale - who has contested three setters in five of her last six matches - had little sleep on Monday night, as she couldn't get the match out of her head.
"I had some dreams about the match," the 28th seed said. "One I woke and lost the match, then I woke up and I had won, and then I woke up and we were replaying the match. I'd say half the night was spent dreaming about the match."
Two of her Olympic teammates, Varvara Lepchenko and Serena Williams, also advanced, as did American lefthander Jesse Levine, who like Baker, qualified and on Tuesday beat Karol Beck 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-2.
After reaching the second round of the 2005 US Open with an upset of then No. 9 Gaston Gaudio, Baker saw his body fall apart. He had five surgeries: two on his left hip, one on his right, one on a sports hernia and then elbow surgery in 2008. He spent most of six years off the tour.
Some of his junior peers - Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Stan Wawrinka , Tomas Berdych made it big- and he had to sit back and watch them gain accolades.
"You try not to play that guessing game on what could have been. I’m not going to lie," he said recently. "I was pretty disappointed when I had to sit out all that time. It was pretty tough to watch all the guys on TV having tons of success. I had to learn to deal with it.
"You can’t fight the things you can’t control," he added. "I tried to stay positive and hoped that one day I would be able to give it another go. Do I wish that this would have never happened and been able to play right through? Of course. But that’s not the case, so I had to take it in stride and make the best of the situation."
A 4.0 student in high school, he went back to school at Belmont University and for one year worked as an assistant tennis coach. But he never completely let go of his dreams to become a relevant player on tour again and has worked diligently to get his ranking up to No. 122 and he will likely crack the top 100 after Wimbledon. He isn’t quite sure if he's substantially better than his pre-surgery self and he certainly isn't quicker, but his all-around game looks a whole lot more forceful.
"I think I am definitely a better player," he said. " I think just being older in itself, even though maybe not experienced because I wasn't out on tour, just being able to handle the ups and downs on and off the court.
"Sometimes if you're not doing well, if you lose a couple of matches in a row, it can wear on a younger player," he added. "Then as far as the game goes, I think my forehand is better now. I think maybe backhand chip, maybe volley. But I think for the most part the forehand is better than before."
Baker has yet to hire to an agent and cash in on his newfound success. But he is a careful sort who doesn’t seem to make rash decisions. He will need to be careful in in his next match against the left-handed Jarkko Nieminen, who upset 14th seed Feliciano Lopez 7-6(4), 3-6, 7-6(5), 6-4, as the Fin is cagey player. But he has been on a roll as of late and at this point, little that he does surprises anyone, especially himself.
"I’ve never been this confident on the ATP Tour," he said. "I think it just takes winning some matches. I think Nice was huge. Just being able to beat guys top 100, top 50 in the world, maybe even though you're not necessarily playing that much better, you know in the big moments of the match that you're more confident."