For many of the top-ranked American tennis players, the U.S. Open is the most cherished event on the tour calendar — an opportunity to celebrate the final major of the year before a passionate and partisan New York City crowd.
But for Brian Baker, this week’s tournament holds added significance. When the 27-year-old Nashville native takes the court for his first-round match against Czech Jan Hajek it will mark his first appearance at Flushing Meadows in seven years. And no matter how brutal the on-court conditions or mental obstacles Baker faces this week, they won’t begin to approach the challenges he surmounted just to get there.
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.”
Seven years ago Baker stood across the net from Novak Djokovic in a Wimbledon qualifier — both aiming to reach the main draw of the sport’s most iconic tournament for the first time. It was a critical moment for two players whose careers have since taken drastically divergent paths.
In the first game of the match, Djokovic wrong-footed Baker with a shot and Baker tore his MCL. The 18-year-old Serbian qualified and advanced to the third round — his deepest Grand Slam run at the time — and his ascent continued through last year, when he won three of the four majors to capture the world’s No. 1 ranking. For Baker, the injury continued a maddening run of physical breakdowns.
When he returned to the All England club last month, he couldn’t help but recall that day.
“Maybe it’s fate,” Baker said with a chuckle. “I think I did have a moment in the qualifying match when I went up 2-1 where I felt like, ‘At least I got past the first game.’ ”
But after his breakout performance at Wimbledon, Baker struggled to translate his success on grass to the hardcourts back home. He dropped four consecutive first-round matches, including a frustrating three-set loss to qualifier Florent Serra at the Citi Open in Washington.
“Some of those matches were pretty tight, so it was tough,” said Baker, who knocked off Kohlschreiber last week in Cincinnati for his first hardcourt win since April. “But if you’re going to make it out here, you know that every month of the year is not going to be awesome. It’s unrealistic to think that I’d keep winning all the time like those first few weeks of the summer, and by now, I’m used to being able to handle the ups and downs.”
Now older but more polished, Baker is plowing ahead, eager to make up for lost time and prove he can still compete with the best players in the world. But he’s mindful to cherish each moment of the journey, because as he knows all too well, they can be fleeting.
“I always had confidence in my ability that if I could stay healthy, I could have success,” he said. “But it does make it a lot sweeter. After all the downs, I’m not taking anything for granted, that’s for sure.
“It’s been a fun ride, and I just hope it continues.”