Brian Baker of the United States saw his 15-match win streak snapped by Nicolas Almagro.
By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
Since the last time Brian Baker competed in a Grand Slam tournament, back in 2005, he has had five surgeries, enrolled in college and watched some of his contemporaries from his junior days, like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Stanislas Wawrinka, go on to become some of the top players in the world.
It was also back in 2005 that Baker last played an (almost) complete year of tennis, before his body let him down and prevented him from playing the game he loved. That year he also scored his greatest professional victory to date, upsetting No. 9 Gaston Gaudio in the opening round of the US Open.
Unfortunately for the then-rising star, hip surgery came soon after, and Baker was off the ATP Tour in 2006 following surgery for a sports hernia. He played a few Challenger events in 2007 but that too was followed by more surgery, this time to both hips and then Tommy John surgery—a common ligament-replacement elbow surgery for baseball players—all in 2008.
Unable to play tennis, Baker enrolled at Belmont University in 2008, but he never felt finished with tennis, because he did not leave the game on his own terms.
Last year Baker began to finally feel better and, at age 26, decided to attempt a comeback. Having not played a professional tennis event since 2007, he was unranked and back to competing in Futures events with new pros and teenagers.
"I felt like I had some unfinished business. It's not like I stopped tennis because I just got tired of it. It was taken away because my body wouldn't hold up," Baker said. "I always wanted to come back, it was just whether I could or not. When I started feeling good enough to give it a go, I wanted for sure to do that. I didn't want to be 35 and have to look back and be like, ‘I wish I had given it one other shot,’ if for anything else, just for peace of mind."
Now, less than a year into his comeback, Baker, now 27, is set to compete in the main draw of the 2012 French Open starting next week. He earned a USTA wild card into the Roland Garros based on his performance in a few USTA Pro Circuit events this spring, a run that included just his second singles title since 2004.
And since then, the success has been building, making the comeback story even better. This week Baker qualified for his first ATP Tour event since 2005, at the Open de Nice Cote d'Azur in Nice, and kept going. He defeated No. 84 Sergiy Stakhovsky in the first round in three sets and then earned one of the biggest wins of his career, upsetting world No. 14 Gael Monfils in straight sets and is now into the semifinals.
Not a bad way to enter his first career Roland Garros main draw.
All told, it will be nearly seven years between Grand Slams for Baker, and this will be his first time competing in the main draw at Roland Garros. But playing at the game’s highest level is why Baker returned, and he is happy to see his hard work paying off.
"One of the main reasons for coming back was to compete to get in the main draw of Grand Slams," he said. "Grand Slams are the pinnacle of tennis. Anytime you can play one, it's a great accomplishment. I'm really looking forward to it. Of course, I'll probably be a little bit nervous going out there. But overall, I'm not putting too much pressure on myself. I just want to go out there and give myself the best chance to succeed."
Roland Garros was the site of one of Baker’s greatest achievements in his junior career. He reached the boys’ singles final there in 2003, defeating Marcos Baghdatis and Tsonga along the way before falling to Wawrinka in three sets in the final.
With that happy memory to draw on, Baker says he has always enjoyed playing on clay, approaching it with a positive attitude and as a good opportunity to showcase his all-court game and shot-making abilities.
"For some reason, I always had success on clay throughout my career. [The French Open] is a pretty special tournament," Baker said. "[I am] definitely confident in my ability. I have an all-court game, have some variety. I think that helps when the points are generally longer, you have to construct the points a little bit more as opposed to one or two shots on a hard court. I can use some touch and mix in some spin as well."
Being fit is an important aspect of playing on clay, and for Baker, his fitness has continued to improve as he has been able to spend more and more time on the court. Best of all, his recovery time is not as long as when he first came back, and so far, none of the old injuries have been a problem.
"I'm still in a process of trying to get as fit as I can," he said. "The body right now, it's feeling better than it has in a long time. Last year, coming back, I couldn't play a full schedule. After I played like eight matches in a week, I had to take a couple weeks off and recover, whereas this year, I've been able to play a normal schedule."
Increased play has resulted in greater success, and as his ranking moved up (he’s currently No. 216), he is back to playing mostly Challenger events, instead of Futures. And while he is still one of the older players on the Challenger circuit, he hopes that is a short-term issue as well. A continued ascent up the rankings means more play on the ATP Tour through the rest of the year, and that is a journey that starts next week in Paris.
"I've always had confidence in my ability if I was able to stay healthy," he said. "The tour definitely has changed. Coming back, having to play Futures, it is a different scenario when you're one of the oldest guys playing instead of one of the youngest. [But] quickly getting out of Futures, getting into Challengers, I still have some buddies I used to train with and turned pro with. It's definitely been a lot more fun doing that. Hopefully I can keep pushing through and hopefully start playing some more ATPs."