It’s been more than 35 years since Ronald Reagan stated, during his first inaugural address, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.” We discovered heroes in every state, starting with the determined 69-year-old who won a match at an ITF Pro Circuit event earlier this year in the Alabama town of Pelham, and culminating with the coach who has overcome multiple sclerosis to build a winning program at the University of Wyoming. Their compelling stories of courage, perseverance and achievement demonstrate that the message delivered by our 40th President rings as true today as it did then.
There were a lot of amazing athletes on the U.S. Olympic team that traveled to Rio this summer, but you’d be hard pressed to find one whose participation in the Summer Games was as improbable as Brian Baker’s.
Baker was a top junior player from Nashville, TN, but since turning pro in 2003, he has spent more than nine full seasons on the sidelines, having undergone a total of 10 operations on his hips, elbow, knees and back.
“I probably have a better perspective on the game having dealt with all that adversity,” Baker says.
His first extended absence lasted from 2007 until 2011 and included five operations. However, through it all, Baker remained connected to tennis, both as a coach at Belmont University and as a recreational-league player.
In 2011, against all odds, he mounted a miraculous comeback. In a mere 18 months, he won four Challenger titles, reached an ATP final, made it to the fourth round of Wimbledon and got his ranking up to No. 52.
Then, injuries struck again. At the 2013 Australian Open, Baker tore his lateral meniscus and had to be wheeled off court. More operations followed.
There were moments, sitting on the rehab table listening to bad new from doctors, that Baker seriously doubted his future in the sport. But he never gave up hope and returned to the tour full-time this spring, Belmont business degree in hand. After withdrawals by some top American players, his injury-protected ranking was enough to earn Baker entry into Rio, where he played both singles and doubles and even won a match with his partner, Rajeev Ram.
Considering all he’s been through, he didn’t take a single second of it for granted.
“I’m excited to be playing again,” the 31-year-old says. “I’m still getting better each week. My best is yet to come.”