It may never be too late to be who you might have been, but American Brian Baker could be running out of time.
Baker came up the junior ranks as Andy Roddick was winning his first major title in 2003. With a run to the Roland Garros boy’s final, Baker established himself as an American who could win on clay. At the time, the two looked poised to be this generation’s Sampras/Agassi rivalry, with Roddick’s big serve and preference for faster courts, and Baker’s early return and clay court credentials. Surely the two would contest Slam finals and continue the run of dominance of American men since the early 90s.
But when Roddick retired last year, he did so without ever having played Baker. Baker’s inability, however, to set up an encounter with his would-be rival will go down in his resumé as an “incomplete” rather than a “failure.” Successful as his junior career was, the Nashville native played precious few matches on the senior tour for the last ten years; his one highlight, ironically enough, was a win over senior French Open champion Gaston Gaudio at the US Open in 2005.
From there, Baker would not enter another Grand Slam for the remainder of an injury-filled decade that required five surgeries (two on his left hip, one on his right, hernia and Tommy John elbow surgery). Instead of being one half of a great American rivalry, Baker became a cautionary tale of perceived burnout and chronic injuries. During the time off, he took up a coaching position at Belmont University. Dreams of his own success were officially on the proverbial back burner.
Oddly enough, the desire to return to a world that had caused him such pain and disappointment came when he was furthest away from it. No longer the hotshot junior prodigy, Baker could not rely on a tennis federation that had long since forgotten about him. When he asked for a wildcard into a low level Futures qualifying event, the USTA refused. Faced with the daunting task of starting from scratch, Baker responded with unparallel grace and character. He went on to win that tournament along with several others leading up to the Savannah Challenger, an event that awarded a wildcard into the 2012 French Open.
Baker won there too, but this run of good form would not stay hidden in the minor leagues for long. Days before the French Open was set to begin, Baker caught fire at an ATP event in Nice.
As a qualifier, Baker took out big names like Gael Monfils and Nickolay Davydenko en route to his first ever Tour final at 27 years old. At an age where his contemporaries start looking at the back halves of their careers, Baker played 2012 like Rookie of the Year, with a run to the fourth round of Wimbledon (again as a qualifier) the highlight for a man who had only one Grand Slam win to his name for the better part of a decade.
Coming into 2013, Baker was cautiously optimistic for the sophomore year of his second career. Far from lofty in his goals for the new season, the American was mostly concerned with maintaining his clean bill of health: “I want to stay healthy and get fitter, to get into Top 50 by May. I want to get to the second week of a Slam.”
Everything seemed to be going to plan as the first Slam of the year got under way. Unseeded, Baker won a grueling five set match to set up a second round battle with compatriot Sam Querrey. Another American who has struggled with injury, Querrey is the highest ranked US man in the draw after John Isner’s withdrawal.
Finally faced with an opportunity to play a big name American, Baker was game for the challenge and took the first set in a tiebreaker. Barely two games into the second, Baker felt a pop as he moved for a backhand and knew something was wrong. Hopping off the court, the trainer suspected a torn ACL, a diagnosis that could have meant another year off the court. Thankfully (if one could ever be thankful for an injury), an MRI revealed only a torn lateral meniscus, an injury similar to the one from which Andrea Petkovic currently suffers.
Like the German, Baker will likely be sidelined until the end of the clay court season, where all his success began a year ago. Like the German, Baker’s career, already defined by traumatic injuries, continues to be marked by bad luck and tragic circumstance.