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Is Brian Baker another Roddick?

December 23, 2002 08:54 AM

By Matthew Cronin

In 1999 when now top-10er Andy Roddick won the Orange Bowl, it was pretty apparent that his McEnroe-esque snarl, huge serve and bludgeoning forehandwould take him to lofty heights in the pro game.

After Brian Baker of Nashville won the Orange Bowl two weeks ago, there was no rush amongst analysts to proclaim the lanky, aggressive baseliner a surefire top-20 player. However, there are those who believe that if he stays on the right track and continues to build up his self-confidence, that Baker could be a mainstay on tour for years to come.

Top 10 potential? A reasonable amount.

"He's right up there where Andy was game-wise," said USTA coach Ricardo Acuna, who has been working heavily with Baker since March. "But their weapons are different. The both rely on their serve but Brian's main weapon off the ground is his backhand and Andy's is his forehand. Brian moves just as well and is a little further along in his net game than Andy was at that point. But Andy had one important thing going for him that Brian is still working on: Andy was super competitive and had no doubt he was going to be an elite pro player. He had that cockiness about him that a lot of champions do. Brian is a littler quieter. I'm not saying top-10 is out of the question, he might just take a little longer than Andy did."

Last summer, Baker came into the 18s Super Nationals as the No. 1 seed and was taken down by Malibu's (Calif.) Doug Stewart in the semis. He then lost to Glendale's Robert Yim in three sets for third place. Prakash Amritraj won the title.

Acuna says that Baker was feeling the pressure of being the nation's No. 1 player and wasn't in good enough shape to win a tournament where long three-setters were standard fair.

"After Kalamazoo, he knew he had to work harder off court and develop the confidence of No. 1 player, where he believed he could close out tight matches," Acuna said. "He also needed to be more consistent with his forehand and with his second serve. I knew those two things would improve if he put in the work. Once he discovered that putting in more time off court would improve his staying power and give him the ability to hit his shots deep in three-setters, his overall confidence went up. He's always had great hands, but he needed great legs, too."

But it's one thing to beat your US peers -- whose games you already know so well -- and another to overcome a slew of the world's best juniors at the Orange Bowl.

Only placed No. 11 in the ITF world junior rankings, Baker defeated No. 12 Mathieu Montcourt of France, 7-6 (5), 6-3 in the final. "My strategy was to be patient. Hit it deep. Keep him back there and finally wait for the ball that I could attack and then attack and come in," said Baker, who won his third international junior title this year and fifth overall. "He has a different style of game that I don't see too often, so he gave me a lot of trouble at the beginning, but I sort of figured it out by the second set."

Baker added his name to a list of Orange Bowl boys' 18s champions that includes Roddick, Roger Federer (1998), Jim Courier (1987), Ivan Lendl (1977) and John McEnroe (1976). Three of those men won Slams and the other two - Roddick and Federer - have a very good chance of doing so in the near

Baker will head to Australia in January to try his luck at another junior Grand Slam, where he didn't prove himself this year, losing in the first round of Roland Garros and Wimbledon and reaching the third round at the Australian and US Opens. Should he have a standout season in the year's first three Slams, except him to turn pro instead of going to college.

"It feels good right now but I still have to prove myself," said Baker. "It's good. I hadn't necessarily done as well as I thought I could have at the Slams this year. I was hurt at a couple of them and didn't play well at the other two. It is very exciting for me to do well here."

Like many coaches, Acuna believes that a player has to have three significant weapons to make it as a big time player o the tour. Baker's serve and backhand fit into that category and his return is coming along.

Now he needs to firm up his mental game. "He has a Sampras-type serve - not quite at that level but very good -- but needs to learn how to hold serve when he's not serving well, just like Pete does," Acuna said. "He needed to more disciplined in his approach to the game and I believe he's really coming along. He showed me a lot in winning Orange Bowl. He learned to live with his mistakes and he has a better understanding of the game."

Acuna believes that Baker has a better chance to make it in the pros than his three main peers: Amritraj, who lead USC to the NCAA crown last May; Stewart, who will play for UVA this year; and Yim, who is still struggling trying to find his place in the game.

"Brian is a little better than Prakash," said Acuna. "If you look at Prakash's results in the Futures this fall, he's only doing really well in doubles. Robert has a lot of talent, but Brian has a bigger game." Amritraj,
a sophomore, will return to play for USC in January Yim should be Baker's main competition in the US in '03.

"Robert has great hands and great feet" said USTA National coach Eliot Teltscher of Yim. "A lot of his results depends on where his head is. But he can be an unbelievable shot-maker."

Junior fans should also be aware of Jamil Al Agba who won '02 Muterspaw and reached the quarters of the Super National Clay Courts. "He's a very serious kid with a great work ethic," Teltscher said. "He's a great counter puncher who knows how to win. If he can improve his serve, he could be very good."

Al Agba's coach, Bobby Berger agrees with Teltscher that Jamil's Achilles heel is his serve and says that once the rail-thin Jamil adds another 20 pounds, he should be fine.

"He'll never serve like Sampras but he realizes that and doesn't have to," Berger said. "He's always been a little on the small side but he's more in the style of Agassi and Hewitt, where he's working on developing a serve that's good enough to allow him to control the point."

Al Agba has already been offered scholarships to UCLA and USC, but has his gaze set squarely on the pros. "That's his dream and he's working hard at attaining it," Berger said. "He really feel like he can be a top 10 to 15 player and I'm not going to discourage him from trying."




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