Fabulous Baker Boy hitting all the right notes
TENNIS WIMBLEDON CHAMPIONSHIP:LAST SUMMER Brian Baker was playing in the Middle Tennessee tennis league alongside his father and coaching his local Belmont university team while studying for a business degree. Yesterday at Wimbledon, the 27-year-old Nashville native qualified for the third round of the men’s singles by dismantling Finland’s Jarkko Nieminen, 6-0, 6-2, 6-4.
It’s a remarkable narrative, a Tin Cup of tennis, but there is far greater depth to the baseline of this story. In 2003 Baker was the number-two ranked junior in the world, reaching the age-grade French Open final and beating Marcos Baghdatis and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga en route.
He lost at Roland Garros to Stanislas Wawrinka – the Swiss player is ranked 21st in the world – but a bright future in the sport beckoned, an assumption that was given further credence in 2005 when, as a 20-year-old, he beat number-nine seed Gaston Gaudio at the US Open.
The same year, though, a condition known as femoroacetabular impingement, a childhood developmental issue that leads to an overgrowth around the hip socket where the femoral head grows out, required surgery.
Baker had three operations on his hips, another on his elbow and a fifth for a hernia that enforced a sabbatical from the sport that lasted six years.
“The worst moment was probably sitting in the operating room before my elbow surgery because I’d already had all the hip surgeries and I knew this one was going to be the longest recovery.
“ I told myself I’m not going to keep having surgeries to prolong my career,” he recalled.
In the middle of last year he returned to competitive fare in Challenger tournaments and, amassing a record of 39-10 in singles, took his ranking from 456 to today’s 126. A victory in April of this year in a Challenger event nudged the organisers to offer him a wild card to the French Open.
He warmed up for the Grand Slam by reaching his first ATP final in Nice – coming through three qualifying matches – where he lost to defending champion Nicolas Almagro. At Roland Garros, he beat Belgium’s Xavier Malisse in the first round before losing to world number 13, Gilles Simon.
Baker always knew he had a game, his results vindicated that. He eased through three qualifying rounds to make the main draw here and in his first match he trimmed Rui Machado 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-0.
Yesterday’s match against the left-handed Nieminen, ranked 44th, on court nine should have been a tougher prospect but the American dominated from the opening stanza, winning the first set without dropping a game in just 19 minutes: his opponent managed 11 points.
Baker walks with a conspicuously shallow gait; think Andre Agassi. His movement in play though is athletic, complemented by keen anticipation and a fine appreciation of angles.
The American managed the game with great intelligence, bludgeoning groundstrokes driving Nieminen to seek refuge well behind the baseline.
Once exiled to the far reaches of the court, the Finn was then harangued by drop shots as the American demonstrated a gorgeous touch.
Nieminen gave up running for the dastardly dinks long before the end. Baker also varied the pace, slicing the ball, to manoeuvre his opponent into corners or out of court and then stepping in to take the ball early.
Time and again he wrong-footed his opponent and the 31-year-old Finn couldn’t establish himself in the rallies long enough to develop a rhythm or more pertinently a solution to his travails.
Baker won the second set in 25 minutes and although Nieminen fared a little better in the third, it was a statistical nuance in terms of the outcome.
The manner of the American’s dominance is reflected in a couple of statistics: 34 winners and just eight unforced errors.
He delivered on his assertion after his first-round win when suggesting: “I’d be lying if I sat here and said that I expected all this success to happen right now when I was going through all those surgeries.
“But I never gave up hope . . . that I would be able to come back, and I was always confident in my abilities that if I was able to stay healthy that I would have success but I never imagined at this stage that I would be playing in the French Open and Wimbledon and winning matches. Being here is weird, but also a pretty cool feeling.”
Baker faces 6ft 5in Frenchman Benoit Paire, who accounted for the 22nd seed, Alexandr Dolgopolov (Ukraine) 7-6, 6-4, 6-4.
Professional sport is generally an unsentimental environment but the American has overcome so many obstacles few would begrudge him a chance to step out on to a show court at Wimbledon.
The life of Brian may have a punch-line or two still to come.