Brian Baker in action during the 2012 USTA Pro Circuit Challenger in Tallahassee, Fla.
© Melina Vastola
Brian Baker is living proof that persistence pays off, providing tennis one of the most inspirational stories it has seen in recent years.
The American, who turns 27 on Monday, clinched the USTA’s Roland Garros wild-card berth this weekend en route to capturing the Savannah Challenger. The victory propelled him 79 places in the latest South African Airways ATP Rankings, rising from No. 293 to No. 214.
A promising talent who reached the Roland Garros junior final in 2003 (l. to Wawrinka), Baker saw his career derailed by a string of injuries following his coming out party at the 2005 US Open, where he stunned ninth-ranked Gaston Gaudio in the first round.
Having spent nearly six years away from the game, the Nashville native began his comeback bid unranked in July 2011 by winning a Futures event in Pittsburgh and hasn’t looked back. After qualifying at the Sarasota Challenger last week, where he reached the second round, Baker came through the qualifying again, winning eight matches in Savannah to secure his place in Paris.
ATPWorldTour.com caught up with Baker following his triumph in Georgia, discussing the incredible achievement, his injury struggles and his decision to return to the sport.
Do you feel like this is the beginning of a Hollywood movie script with your 27th birthday coming tomorrow? What went through your mind when you clinched the wild card on Saturday in Savannah?
I don’t know if I would say it’s a movie script, but I’m really excited to have some success in my second go around. I feel like it’s more of a ‘career revival’ kind of thing. Yesterday, going into the match, I knew the winner was going to get the wild card, so I had extra motivation and was very pleased with my performance. I was definitely more pumped up when the last ball went out than I would be in a normal match.
You've defeated quality players, such as Ryan Sweeting, Michael Russell and Robby Ginepri, in the two Challenger events to earn the wild card. Which area of your game has presented the biggest challenge to your opposition?
I think it’s been a combination of things. I think my return is one of my strong suits. And on clay, that’s a big advantage. I also feel like I’ve played pretty solid. I haven’t been giving away many free points, so guys have had to work pretty hard to win each point.
Where does your title run in Savannah rank in comparison to some of your 'Career: Part One' achievements?
It’s up there. I still think my victory over Gaudio at the US Open would be No. 1, against a guy ranked in the top 10. This is right up there with my first Challenger title in Denver in 2004. The first one is always special, but this one is almost another first one because I basically took off six years.
The last time you played a full season was in 2005, having played two Challengers in 2007. What made you decide to give your calling another chance last summer in Pennsylvania?
I felt like I had some unfinished business. My body was the main factor why I took off. I always wanted to come back, but my body wouldn’t allow me to. I started to feel a little bit better last summer, so I told myself to give it a go and see how far I can take it. I’ve had some ups and downs since coming back, but right now, it probably feels better than it has in a long time.
Walk us through your injuries, having had multiple hip surgeries and reconstructive surgery on your elbow.
I’ve had five surgeries. I had the left hip in 2005 after the US Open, sports hernia in 2006, left hip again, the right hip and the elbow surgery, all in 2008.
It seems very uncommon for athletes outside of baseball to have Tommy John surgery on the elbow. Had you heard of athletes from different sports getting it before you went in?
I hadn’t heard of it, either. When I talked to Dr. Andrews, who did my surgery, he said he had done over 1,300 of them, but on tennis players, had only done five or six.
How cautious have you been in your comeback in not pushing too hard? Have you adapted your style of play as a result?
I’ve had to tone back my tournaments. Last year, I think I only played five times. I had to pull out of a semifinal at a Futures event in October because my shoulder was sore. I knew if I played, I’d probably be out for a couple months. I’m definitely listening to my body now and not taking any chances.
As far as adapting, I haven’t really. I try to play as hard as I can. If you’re not going in 100 percent healthy, you’re not going to be able to play that well. It’s more about trying to take care of my body in every way I can, not really adjusting how I play. I’ve changed how I train, not putting as much stress on the body. In this game, with how physical it is, you have to be in great shape to compete at the top level.
When you were out of the game, how hard was it to see players like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Gael Monfils and Marcos Baghdatis develop into elite stars on the ATP World Tour, knowing you beat them in the juniors and might have been on a similar track had it not been for your misfortunes?
You try not to play that guessing game on what could have been. I’m not going to lie. 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. 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.
Why did you decide to enroll at Belmont University?
I would have started earlier if I’d known all my surgeries would have kept me out that long. I was always trying to rehab quickly. I started in the fall of 2008 and went until last summer, taking normal student hours. I also was the assistant coach of the tennis team.
You're traveling without a coach. Are you looking to bring someone on board in the near future?
For right now, there’s no one I have in mind to go after. At some point, that might be the next step. I feel I’d be more inclined to hire someone who is more of a physio/trainer to travel with me before I get a coach because my body right now is the most important thing to my success.
Your appearance in Paris will be your first Grand Slam main draw outside of the US Open. What are you looking forward to most about playing at Roland Garros?
Starting off, I’ve had good memories there. I got to the final as a junior, and I like the clay over there. I didn’t grow up playing on clay, but I’ve had some of my best results on it. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Anytime you can play in a Grand Slam, it’s a special moment. This is the reason why I came back and tried to play again. I wasn’t coming back to try and get into the top 200. I came back to play in Grand Slams. It might have happened a little sooner than expected, but I’m excited to try and have a good result.
With your recent success, how are you approaching the rest of the season? Do you have any specific goals in mind?
I haven’t sat down and thought about many performance-based goals. Now that the body is feeling better and I’ve proven to myself that I can play eight matches in a week, staying relatively healthy, I’ll have to think of some goals. For the rest of the season, I’m going to look to keep the wave of momentum going. I don’t have an exact ranking I’m looking to get to, but it would be great to crack the top 150, even top 100, if I keep playing well.
Who would you like to thank for getting you to where you are today?
There are so many people I can thank. My parents have always been behind me from day one, when I decided to turn pro instead of going to college. They’ve always been in my corner and supported everything I’ve wanted to do. My dad was my first coach, so he’s been instrumental in my tennis. My girlfriend has been supportive through this, especially with all the travel and training and me being away often. Coach Jim Madrigal from Belmont has been huge. He’s always been one of my biggest fans in Nashville. I feel like the whole national tennis community has been behind me because they know how much this means to me to be able to play at a high level. I’ve had an overwhelming amount of support since I came back.