Brian Baker climbs back up tennis' ladder

American Brian Baker at the 2012 French Open American Brian Baker at the 2012 French Open at Roland Garros, Paris. Photo Credit: AP

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Nine years ago, Nashville high school junior Brian Baker was following the tennis rainbow: No. 2 in the world junior rankings, champion of the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament, runner-up in the French Open's junior competition.

Instead of some pot of rich-and-famous gold, though, he suddenly found himself on a dead-end street.

Baker, now 27, spent the next six years dealing with hip surgery, sports hernia surgery, Tommy John surgery. He couldn't even bring himself to watch tennis on television.

He settled into Belmont University, taking classes toward a business degree and serving as the school's assistant tennis coach. Belmont's head coach, Jim Madrigal, had coached Baker as a teen, and watched as Baker regained his health and began to pound Top 10 college players in workouts.

So, last summer, Baker went down to the lowest level in the sport, entering a Futures Tournament in Pittsburgh. "I think it's pretty well documented," Baker said, "that I had to get a wild card to get into the qualies, then won the tournament without losing a set."

He played Futures events in Sunrise and Weston, Fla., Calabasas and Costa Mesa, Calif., then began to ease back into the lower-level tournaments on the men's pro tour -- in Dallas, Tallahassee, Sarasota, Savannah. Quietly at first, then rapidly gaining speed, he was on his way to the second round of the French Open this spring, and an attention-grabbing run to Wimbledon's fourth round last month.

From a lower-than-Titanic-ruins depth, once ranked 1,167th, Baker is up to a career-high No. 70 -- and playing in his first U.S. Open main draw.

"Of course, it's a huge difference," he said of having to start over at the bottom. "The quality of just the site, the hotels, the money. Everything is a lot nicer up here. Most of the time, if you're still in Futures after six or seven years, you quit.

"So, the Futures, I didn't know a lot of guys. It wasn't until I get to the challengers and then back on the ATP that I saw a lot of the guys I knew from before."

He has been playing tennis since he was 2; both his older sister, Kathryn, and older brother, Art, played college tennis. "I've always been a good ball striker," he said. "But I really don't know how I was able to come back and start winning so quickly. When you take off that long, it's not just your tennis game that's different, but learning to play again and performing under pressure. I didn't do that for six years."

Now, Baker has become a little bit famous, sometimes recognized at home in Nashville as the American male who went farthest (along with Mardy Fish) at Wimbledon, though he noted, "It's not like a Titans [NFL player] or something like that. The tennis community, most people knew me, anyway. I guess a few people that are casual fans know me now."

What's nice, he said, is "to go into a tournament and focus on tennis and know what's going on with the body. I still have to go to the training room and deal with a few things, but it's nothing that's affecting my practice or my place, and that's huge."

Yes, he is surprised by the way this is working out. And relieved not to be worrying about physical problems. And, no, "I don't think I'm hypochondriac status yet."

For now, it's all rainbows; no rain.

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