Brian Baker is living the type of comeback story that only happens in movies.
Over the past 12 months, the 27-year-old has risen from No. 746 in the world rankings to No. 79, reaching the round of 16 at Wimbledon and silencing doubters along the way. He wasn't supposed to take six years off from professional tennis. His body wasn't supposed to endure three hip operations, a sports hernia and elbow ligament-replacement surgery. He wasn't supposed to be the No. 7 men's tennis player in the United States entering this week's Citi Open.
But he is. And, as they say in Hollywood, the film is still rolling.
"It's been unbelievable," Baker said Sunday at Rock Creek Park, where the Open began Monday afternoon. "I never thought I would have done this well this quickly."
Nobody did. This time last summer, Baker was an assistant coach at Belmont University in his hometown of Nashville, Tenn. He had a superb career on the junior Grand Slam circuit but played fewer than four years on the ATP World Tour before his first hip surgery in 2005. The sports hernia followed in 2006, and the elbow operation in 2008. From November 2005 to July 2011, he played just four pro matches.
Yet that's not to say he wasn't playing. Last summer, Baker went undefeated in the Middle Tennessee Tennis League. His father and uncle needed an extra player for their recreational team, so Baker offered to fill in.
"Some matches were against some of the top teaching pros around town, and there were a few college guys that had just graduated that still were playing some," Baker said of his competition. "So there were some pretty good players, but nobody at a great level."
Baker always told himself that he would try to make a comeback when his body starting feeling better. But for a while, it looked like that time would never come. Although Baker's confidence in his abilities on the court never waned, his confidence in his body did.
"I think that once you're out for that long, you have to be realistic and know that it might not be in the cards," he said. "But like I said, I never gave up hope."
In the middle of last summer, Baker started feeling better and decided to register for an ITF Futures tournament in Pittsburgh. Not only did he win the tournament, he didn't drop a set.
Very few tennis players would even attempt such a comeback. The most notable to try was the legendary Bjorn Borg, who retired in 1983 with 11 Grand Slam singles titles and returned to the game in 1991. Borg played in 12 tournaments, never made it out of the first round and retired again two years later.
So after winning in Pittsburgh, Baker already was ahead of the curve.
"It's just an amazing story," said Belmont tennis coach Jim Madrigal, who has known Baker since he was 15. "The idea that this guy who had never really had a firm pro career has taken off this much time and jumped back in the game, and the game hasn't passed him by, is amazing."
Slowly but surely, Baker started piecing together his pro career. He bounced between the Challenger Tour and Futures tournaments — the second and third tiers of international tennis, respectively — and won his first Challenger final in Savannah, Ga., last April. As a result, the United States Tennis Association gave Baker a wild card berth in the French Open.
Baker entered the ATP Nice Open as a tuneup for Roland Garros and beat Gael Monfils and Nikolay Davydenko en route to the final. The next week, he reached the third round of the French Open. Then, at Wimbledon, he advanced to the round of 16. The tennis world was stumped.
How does a once-retired assistant coach from Tennessee make some of the best players in the world look silly?
"He sees the ball better than everybody else, for the most part," Madrigal said. "The game happens a little bit more in slow-motion for him so he's able to pick apart some of the things his opponents don't do as well and recognize things fairly quickly."
Baker offered a simpler answer.
"One thing leads to another and you're playing really good tennis," he said.
Baker arrived at Grandstand Court 1 on Sunday morning to get in a quick practice session before his opening match — a 6-4, 3-6, 4-6 loss — against Florent Serra on Monday. He was greeted outside the gate by a handful of fans, one wanting an autograph and another asking for a picture. Sweat still dripping from his forehead, Baker granted the requests. Then, racquet bag in tow, he strolled around Rock Creek Park mostly undisturbed.
He may not be a movie star quite yet, but the film is still rolling.
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