(Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of updates on players who have committed to playing in this year’s Winston-Salem Open.)
By John Delong
Brian Baker is, quite simply, the feel-good story of the year in professional tennis.
The 27-year-old from Nashville has shot up the ATP World Tour rankings in the past four months, as he continues an amazing comeback from a series of injuries that had seemingly ended his career at one point.
He only returned to professional tennis full-time last July, and was ranked No. 456 in the world at the start of 2012. Now, he’s ranked No. 76 with a bullet, and will go to the BB&T Atlanta Open this week fresh off a trip to the fourth round at Wimbledon.
Before that came a trip through qualifying and on to the finals at Nice, and a trip to the second round at Roland Garros.
"It’s kind of crazy what’s going on," Baker said while at Wimbledon. "I feel like it’s been kind of like a whirlwind ride."
Baker wasn’t ranked high enough to be guaranteed a spot in the Winston-Salem Open’s Main Draw when entrants were announced last week – the cutoff came at No. 68 – but he would be one of the first to jump into the Main Draw should there be any attrition. And if that doesn’t happen, he has shown he has no problems with going through qualifying first.
His recent success borders on the unbelievable, and he is quick to acknowledge it.
"I’d be lying if I sat here and said that I expected all this to happen right now when I was going through all those surgeries," Baker said. "But I never gave up hope that I would be able to come back. I was always confident in my abilities that if I was ever able to stay healthy that I would have success.
"So I guess I was hopeful that I would come back and that my game would still be there, but I don’t think I ever imagined that at this point this year that I was going to be playing both at the French and Wimbledon, and winning rounds and winning Challengers and getting to the finals of an ATP. So it has been a pleasant surprise. It has been an unbelievable ride."
This is the type of success some had predicted for Baker before all the injuries.
He was the No. 2-ranked junior in the world before turning pro in 2003. He had won the Orange Bowl junior singles crown and was runner-up to Stanislas Wawrinka in the Roland Garros juniors.
The injuries began to mount, though – two surgeries on his left hip, one on his right hip, one for a sports hernia, and finally the career-threatening Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. By 2008, he was out of the game altogether and was back to being a full-time student and assistant tennis coach at Belmont University in Nashville.
Only last summer did he feel healthy enough to try a comeback.
"The summer of 2011, everything started coming together and started feeling a lot better," Baker said. ‘I said, ‘Hey, let’s give it a go now.’ I felt good. I still had some aches and pains coming back. I think not the surgeries but just from having not played day-in and day-out tennis for that long. So I only played five events last year. And then this year I’ve felt pretty good."
The major breakthrough came in April, when he won a Challenger in Savannah. That helped earn him the USTA’s wildcard into Roland Garros. So he went to Europe early, made it through qualifying at Nice, and then knocked off Sergiy Stakhovsky, Gael Monfils, Mikhail Kukushkin and Nikolay Davydenko en route to the Nice final, where he lost to Nicolas Almegro.
That was impressive enough as it was.
Then he won one match at Roland Garros, and stayed around to try to qualify for Wimbledon. He won three qualifying matches to make the Main Draw, then won three more matches – over Rui Machado, Jarkko Nieminen and Benoit Paire – before losing to Philipp Kohlscheiber in the fourth round.
Along the way, wildcard offers to various tournaments in the Emirates Airline US Open Series and a variety of endorsement deals started coming his way. And his confidence soared.
"I think Nice was huge," he said. "Just being able to beat guys Top 100, Top 50 in the world, that allows you to, maybe even though you’re not necessarily playing that much better, you know in the big moments of the match that you’re more confident."
The confidence is now at an all-time high.
"I’m a better player than I was before the injuries, just from being able to handle all the ups and downs on and off the court," he said. "This time around, I feel like I’ve kind of earned it. I feel like I have broken through. The last two months, it’s been kind of a quick transition but I feel like the first time around I was maybe close to knocking on the door. This time I’ve actually knocked on the door, gotten an answer, and gone through the door. It’s been a lot of fun these last two months. But I’m definitely not satisfied. I’m looking forward to doing bigger and better things."