The ghost of promise past has suddenly appeared.
But no, Brian Baker doesn’t feel like an apparition, though his presence this week at an ATP tour event in Nice has caused some double takes.
“Some guys have been somewhat surprised to see my face again,” said Baker by phone on Monday, where he prepared to play Sergiy Stakhovsky after blowing through three qualifying matches without dropping a set. “They know that I was back playing, but they’re surprised to see me and talk to me.”
Baker, 27, is quick to brush off the startled looks. Who wouldn’t be a little taken off guard to see the American in corporeal form after six years out of the game?
Felled by injuries, the one-time top junior never lost his desire to make it as a pro and has clawed his way back into the sport. In a few days, he will appear—in the flesh—in the main draw of the French Open, having stunningly earned a wild card by dint of his play this spring. It will be his first main draw in a major since 2005.
“It’s something I can appreciate more now because I know how easy it can be taken away,” he says.
By now, the majority of pros, and plenty of tennis fans, have heard about his back-from-the-dead revival. Baker’s inspirational tale of perseverance and persistence is the feel good story of the year, and a crush of media attention has followed him the last few weeks.
It goes something like this:
A decade ago, the 6'3" Baker was one of the USA’s brightest prospects. He was among the top juniors in the world, so good he was invited to practice with Andy Roddick at his home as a teenager.
He was not only good. He was good on that vexing bane of American tennis—clay.
Baker reached the 2003 French Open boys’ final, losing in three tight sets to Stanislas Wawrinka, one of several players Baker beat as a junior that went on to have impact careers—other include Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Based on his results, Baker seemed destined for big things.
When he turned pro (and signed some lucrative sponsorship deals), that looked promising, too. In 2005, he stunned Roland Garros champ Gaston Gaudio in the first round of the U.S. Open, just a year after he’d conquered Paris. That same year he beat another promising young player from Serbia—current No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
But Baker’s body would not follow where his heart wanted to go.
Between 2005 and 2008, he underwent five surgeries—three on his hips, one for a sports-related hernia, and another on his elbow, the so-called Tommy John procedure. By the end of his ordeal, he had become a pro at rehab.
Baker says the first hip surgery was the most worrisome, since players with similar injuries—like Magnus Norman and Gustavo Kuerten—failed to recover fully. The elbow, which needed a grafted tendon, took longest to heal.
At this point Baker was 23. He did the logical thing. He went back to school, enrolling at nearby Belmont University, where he also worked as the assistant tennis coach. He kept busy, but couldn’t help notice that the players he once beat were tearing up the pro tour.
“I tried not to look back too much,” he says. “I did everything in my power not to think about it. Mentally, it was one of the hardest things to go through. It gave me peace of mind that I wasn’t trying to blame anything.”
As he took classes and practiced with the college kids, Baker noticed that he was body wasn’t aching as much. The pain was subsiding. And it dawned on him: Maybe he wasn’t done after all. Maybe the dream he had clung to, the desire he had buried in the busy hubbub of daily college existence, wasn’t dead.
He slowly worked on his game, and last July he entered a Futures event in Pittsburgh. He won it, and hasn’t looked back. He continued to win matches at lower-tier Futures and Challengers in the fall, finishing 2011 at No. 456 with only five tournaments under his belt.
But that was always the rub. He could play. But could his body hold up? A test that paid major dividends occurred last month.
At a Challenger in Savannah, Ga., Baker won eight matches, including three in qualifying, to win the title—his first at that level since 2004. The run clinched a wild card into the French Open through a point system devised by the USTA. Baker, who beat a slew of solid pros such as Michael Russell, Ryan Sweeting, and former U.S. Open semifinalist Robby Ginepri, called it his best week so far.
“Beating all those guys back-to-back was the best stretch for sure,” he says. “Mentally I was exhausted, but I didn’t feel that bad,” he says.
In other words, his body is cooperating.
“I knew what I was getting myself into,” says Baker of the risks to his fragile physique. “Not every day is super fun, but it beats anything else that I’d want to do. Tennis has been the main constant in my life. I enjoy competition and I’ve been blessed with good talent. What I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a little kid is be a pro tennis player.”
Since then, the 216th-ranked Baker has dealt with media coverage from almost every major outlet. He’s kept his head down. He’s put in the long hours. And his game continues to improve, week to week, mostly because he is re-learning how to compete—or as he says, “not pressing as much when playing the big points.”
Peers he grew up such as Amer Delic, Bobby Reynolds, and Rajeev Ram have welcomed him back into the fold with open arms.
“It’s pretty neat from a personal point of view,” says American Ram, who has known Baker since the 12-and-unders. “He’s a good dude and people are happy for him across the board.”
Ram says Baker's strengths—big serve, aggressive groundstrokes and superior returns—are intact.
“The ability hasn’t gone anywhere,” Ram adds. “He’s winning matches fairly easily and winning a lot. The key for him is keeping his body in order.”
He’s getting to know newer guys like John Isner and Sam Querrey, too. Querrey, coming back from elbow surgery, beat Baker in a Challenger last month and they two warmed up several times in Nice, where they are both tuning up for the French Open.
Baker hasn’t set foot in Europe since losing in the first round of qualifying at Roland Garros in 2005. But his first trip back might cause some elevation, at least in his mood, even if he remains even-handed about his progress.
“I’m really excited,” Baker says, his voice almost rising. “I never envisioned that I’d be out that long. I planned on playing all the majors, whether qualies or the main draw, for a long time.”
For now, Baker is without a coach and has yet to re-sign with an agent. He’ll be anything but alone in Paris, however. Accompanying him will be both his parents, his brother, his sister, two sets of aunts and uncles, some stray Nashville fans, and his girlfriend of two years, Alathea Thompson.
“I’m hopeful I can get them all tickets. If I have to, I’ll just buy some,” he says.
First-round opponent Stakhovsky could be forgiven if he looked a little ashen on Tuesday. After all, the 84th-ranked Ukrainian hadn’t played Baker since the American beat him in juniors nine years ago. Ghostly, perhaps, but real.
Very real, as it turned out—Baker won his first ATP match since 2005 with a 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-5 upset, a comeback in more ways than one.
Douglas Robson is a contributor to TENNIS.com and a tennis journalist for USA Today.