When play commences at the U.S. Open on Monday, those lamenting the absence of Rafael Nadal — victim of an ongoing knee injury — could well overlook one of the most captivating stories in tennis this year: Nashville’s Brian Baker.
After seven years and five surgeries, Baker returns to the site of his most impressive win: a straight-sets upset of 9th-seeded Gastón Gaudio at the 2005 Open. After so much time, a sports hernia and serious injuries to his hip and elbow, Baker’s comeback over the past year has been remarkable to say the least — just last year he was an assistant tennis coach at Belmont playing on his dad’s Middle Tennessee Tennis League team — and has surprised even Baker himself.
The comeback began in July 2011 when an unranked Baker won a Futures event in Pittsburgh. In April, after he earned a wild-card berth in the French Open, Baker said it would be great to crack the Top 150. Then came Wimbledon, Baker’s surprise run to the Round of 16, and his meteoric rise from the world’s 458th-ranked player when the year started to No. 78 today.
“It’s fair to say I did have a lot more success than I thought I would,” Baker told us last weekend from a tournament in Cincinnati. “Wimbledon was huge. It was the first time I’d ever played the main draw at Wimbledon. It’s the Grand Slam with the most history. Essentially it was great to do it there, on the biggest stage in our game. It was a huge confidence boost. I proved to myself that I can compete with these guys.”
Making a run at the U.S. Open would mean even more. “All the Grand Slams are special, but being an American and playing in New York especially,” Baker said.
Baker has spent the intervening years in Nashville, where, growing up, a tennis court was never farther away than his backyard. While his current success may take him away to focus on training and to find the best hitting partners, Baker said Music City will always be home.
“I like Nashville. I’ve not grown tired of it. I have so many family and friends here. This is where my base has been,” said Baker, who described himself as more of a “’mid-town guy,’ than Broadway honky-tonker” who has been impressed by the evolution of The Gulch.
“I think it’s definitely become a lot more cultured,” Baker said. “You have always had the country music scene and all that. It’s showing the rest of the world that it’s more than country music. I found that out very quickly going to Belmont. We have world-class musicians. I think it can satisfy many personalities.”
While healing from his injuries in his home city, Baker enrolled in Belmont, joined the tennis coaching staff and maintained both his love of tennis and a good attitude.
“You have to stay positive. The mind is a powerful tool,” said Baker, who said his long and frustrating battle with injuries has brought him in-tune with his body. “Stay patient and listen to your body. You’ve got to let your body heal.”
Last summer, Baker’s body told him it was ready to make one last shot at professional tennis. True to his words, Baker listened. It’s hopeful that Baker will be rewarded by making a splash at the event where he first made a name for himself seven years ago, but Baker has smarter, longer-view goals in mind.
“I’d like to be top 50 by the end of the year, but ranking goals are not the top priority, which is to continue to get fitter and stronger,” he said. “It’s not a sprint right now — even though I know this summer has been a sprint. You do have to look at the big picture as well.”