Hard-Luck Case of the Year: Brian Baker
With the 2013 tennis season in the past, it's time to dole out our annual awards. Look for the winners—for better or worse—throughout this week on TENNIS.com. (To see what's been unveiled thus far, click here.)
Anyone watching the second-round Australian Open match between Americans Sam Querrey and 28-year-old Brian Baker last January could be forgiven for staring in pure disbelief when, in the third game of the second set, Baker suddenly collapsed on the court, clutching his knee. Just minutes later, Baker, who won the first set, was rolled off the court in a wheelchair, a loser by default because of a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee.
It was yet another fierce blow against the most beleaguered hard-luck case in tennis. Baker, a former French Open junior finalist and Orange Bowl champion, had already missed about six years of his career thanks to an assortment of injuries—five of them requiring surgery, starting when he was just 20 years old. Baker became a soaring inspirational story in 2012, when he returned from off the radar and slashed his way back onto the main tour.
By the end of that year, Baker had improved his ranking to No. 61 and seemed primed to make a push in what would have been his first full year on tour since 2005. But his 2013 campaign ended in Melbourne before it even got started.
“I don’t know why it happened, I had no inkling,” Baker told me in a telephone interview yesterday. “Five seconds before the knee gave out it felt just fine. Twenty minutes after it happened I was getting an MRI, still in my tennis clothes. Four days later, back in Memphis, I had surgery.”
Baker took nine stitches meant to repair the meniscus, and he was advised to do nothing for six weeks. By mid-April, he was toying with a racquet again, and within a few months he traveled to a few tour events, mainly to get an appropriate degree of quality practice.
Baker played a Challenger tournament in August as a warm-up for his return at Cincinnati, and he beat Dennis Istomin before losing to Grigor Dimitrov in that Masters event. Ranked No. 185 at the U.S. Open, Baker played a good match with former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, but he lost in four close sets. It ought to have been a gratifying, worry-free period, but through the summer Baker noticed that his repaired knee was swelling up, tender, and causing him to lose strength gradually in his quad muscle. It turned out he needed—what else?—surgery.
This time, the procedure was fairly low-impact, but Baker resolved not to force his return or set a target date for his return in 2014. “I don’t think I’ve ever stepped on a court 100 percent because of all he issues I’ve had,” he confessed. “The best I can hope for is good, not perfect. But the thing is I also need to play because that makes you strong in a way nothing else can. So I’ve been pulling my hair out sometimes, because it’s tough—there’s only so many hours in a day that you can stretch or do rehab, and that leaves a lot of down time to fill.”
Baker fills that down time reading (John Grisham is one of his favorites authors, but he’s read many tennis books as well). Once again, he’s also helping out the tennis team at Belmont University near his home in Nashville, Tenn. He’s biding his time, resolved to building a base of fitness and strength from ground zero.
“I’m still expecting to resume my career,” he told me. “Some people think that because I’ve been through this before it should be easier this time around, but it isn’t. If anything, it’s tougher.”
This time around, though, Baker has a significant advantage. His ranking last January was frozen at No. 57, so he’ll be automatically in the main draw at any tournament he enters as he mounts yet another comeback.