Baker’s comeback story continues at U.S. Open

Brian Baker gave himself one year.

In the fall of 2011, Baker, then an assistant tennis coach and rising senior at Belmont, decided to put his coaching and academic career on hold to give professional tennis one more shot after he was given the clean bill of health he hadn’t had for years.

Still, after being off the pro tour for nearly seven years, he didn’t foresee competing — and winning matches — on the grass courts of Wimbledon, the oldest tennis tournament in the world.

“It happened a lot quicker than I expected,” Baker said days after he completed a tournament in Cincinnati. “But I thought if I could ever stay healthy for a period of time, I could do well on the pro tour.”

This week Baker will play in the U.S. Open after capturing the attention of tennis players, fans and journalists around the world with a summer run where he won matches in two straight major tournaments.

By the end of May, he qualified for the French Open as a wild card and won one match. But his biggest run came a few weeks later at Wimbledon in late June.

After qualifying for the British leg of the Grand Slam just days before it started, he won not just one match, but three. During the first week, he won nine of 10 sets against his three opponents and made it to the second week of the tournament.

By the time he lost his Round of 16 match to Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber, Baker was not just the talk of the English tournament, but also the sports world. National sportswriters called his resurgence one of the biggest comebacks American sports had seen in years.

Baker started 2012 ranked No. 456 in the world. In the August 20 stats, he’s No. 70. Even though that’s a career high, it’s not like his success in the past year — one he’s called amazing and remarkable — is new to him.

Before multiple injuries had seemingly derailed his career, Baker was a rising star in the tennis world. By 2005, he was No. 2 on the junior tennis circuit; in the fall, he beat the world’s No.9 at the U.S. Open.

After that, Baker sustained injury after injury. There were the procedures he had on both hips. And the elbow that needed Tommy John surgery. There was even a sports hernia. Those injuries and subsequent rehabilitations took him out of the sport he spent years of his life training for but eventually gave the Nashville native the chance to end up to Belmont. Coming to a school in his hometown allowed him to stay near his family and also get the chance to coach with and work under Belmont men’s tennis coach Jim Madrigal, an old coach and mentor of his.

“We go way back, and he’s helped me out a lot with my tennis game,” he said. “And I knew he would have a spot for me as an assistant coach. It kind of both worked together, and just seemed like a good fit.”

The fit between Baker and Madrigal has continued, even since Baker returned to the pros. During the summer, Madrigal has helped coach his former assistant during several summer tournaments and will also coach Baker at the U.S. Open in New York.

When Baker began at Belmont, he still had a long way to go to get back tournaments like the one starting in New York on Monday. Once he fully recovered from his injuries, he wanted to give professional tennis one more shot, even if that meant stopping his academic and coaching work at Belmont the year before he was supposed to graduate with a degree in business or finance.

That doesn’t mean he won’t come back to campus to finish up the degree.

“I didn’t put in three hard years of staying up late and studying for nothing,” Baker said. “I’ll get it. I’ll just get it a little later.”

Until then, Baker wants to do what he can to not just succeed on the pro circuit, but do so for the long term. In a game where Baker admits “you’re only as good as your body will take you,” he’s hired a trainer and will do all he can to keep playing.

“I don’t take anything for granted,” Baker said. “I hope this is not a sprint, and I hope I can be out here for another four or five years.”

Baker’s first U.S. Open match since 2004 will be against Jan Hajek of the Czech Republic. For him, any success he will have in the tournament or the future will be something special.

“When you’re out seven years, and you don’t know whether you can get back to doing what you love, it makes it that much sweeter.”

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