Once the world’s second-ranked junior, Baker was repeatedly betrayed by his body in the years after he reached the second round at the 2005 Open. But after weathering those injuries, he is suddenly back in the spotlight.
Two years ago, Baker, now ranked a career-high No. 70 in the world, was working as an assistant tennis coach at Belmont University, his dreams of a successful tennis career derailed by five major surgeries over a six-year span. A series of hip and elbow injuries as well as a torn medial collateral ligament and a sports hernia broke down Baker’s body and threatened to break his spirit.
“It was one of those really sad stories,” said former Davis Cup captain and ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe, who years ago invited a young Baker to train with the U.S. team. “ Here you had a top prospect with great talent and his body just kept failing him.”
But last summer, buoyed by a rare period of good health, Baker decided to give it one final go.
In June, after an inspiring run to the final in Nice and a first-round win at the French Open, Baker arrived at Wimbledon eager to qualify for the main draw for the first time. One week later, he stood alongside top-seeded American Mardy Fish as one of only two U.S. men in the round of 16.
“I never gave up hope that I would play again. I never once said, ‘I’m done,’ ” Baker said late last month. “But when you keep on having surgeries and one blow after another, it’s really frustrating and disappointing. You have to be realistic and think about what you’re going to do in life if this doesn’t work out.
“But I never lost the passion and the desire. And now, finally, my body is giving me the opportunity to go out and give it another shot.”
When his improbable Wimbledon run ended with a loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber, Baker’s world ranking had skyrocketed from 456th at the start of 2012 to 76th. That run of play helped him earn a direct acceptance into the U.S. Open.
“I always look at the results from the various futures and challenger events. When I saw his name pop up last year, I called [U.S. men’s Olympic coach] Jay Berger, and I said, ‘Is this the Brian Baker?” McEnroe said.
“To me, it’s one of the great sports stories of the year. To come from where he came from — literally having no ranking at all — and to do it at his age, it’s just incredible. And it really shows you the beauty of tennis. If you’re good enough, you can make it, no matter what.”