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TENNIS

Forced off tour by injuries, Baker back at Slam

Brian Baker gets asked quite a bit these days to run down the long list of operations his body needed during his 6½ years away from the ATP tour.

There was the left hip operation in November 2005. A sports hernia in 2006, which, he explained Sunday at the French Open, is "more like a glorified lower ab tear, where they go in and reinforce it and fix it up."

That's where Baker paused to note, "I didn't actually have surgery in 2007," before resuming with 2008, which included Tommy John reconstructive right elbow surgery in February, another left hip job in April, then work on his right hip in June.

"No more since then," he concluded. "It's been good."

Baker's play of late has been superb, including reaching an ATP final for the first time last week at Nice.

When the 27-year-old from Nashville, Tenn., steps on court Monday at Roland Garros to face 2002 Wimbledon semifinalist Xavier Malisse of Belgium, it will be Baker's first appearance at a Grand Slam tournament since the 2005 U.S. Open. Coincidentally, he lost to Malisse in the second round then.

Nice bookends.

Baker earned a French Open wild card from the U.S. Tennis Association by virtue of results at low-level clay-court events in the United States. He hadn't played in the main draw of a tour-level tournament since that loss to Malisse in New York nearly seven years ago, until managing to qualify in Nice.

Making it all the way to the final, where he lost to Nicolas Almagro, lifted his ranking from 216th to 141st.

Baker called his performance in Nice "a huge, huge deal."

"I don't think I could have ever envisioned starting in 'quallies' and getting all the way to the final. I knew once I won a couple matches the confident built, and by the end of the week I was feeling good every time I went on the court," said Baker, who took classes and coached tennis at Belmont University in Nashville while off the tour. "That's the best I've ever done in any ATP tournament — by far. Unbelievable week."

He'd never been past the second round during his "first career" on tour.

Then again, Baker played in only 12 tournaments before all of the injuries mounted and forced him to take a long break.

"That's why it makes it so much sweeter just to have that success now, because of how much I went through in the past, how much pain and just having tennis taken away from you not from your own doing," he said. "It's not like I wanted to quit tennis."

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THIRTYSOMETHING: Andre Agassi was the last man in his 30s to win a Grand Slam title — he was 32 at the 2003 Australian Open — and more than a third of the field at this year's French Open is a thirtysomething.

The 37 men in the main draw at Roland Garros who are 30 or older are the most at any Grand Slam tournament in the Open era, which began in 1968.

That, ahem, experienced group includes Roger Federer and 2003 French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero, who beat French wild-card entry Jonathan Dasnieres de Veigy 6-1, 6-4, 6-3.

"I saw myself in the mirror, and when I walk on the court I don't think about whether I'm younger or older," the 32-year-old Ferrero said. "The only thing I try to do is play well. And I'm at Roland Garros, and the idea was to play well today."

Ferrero reached No. 1 in the rankings in 2003, when he also was the U.S. Open runner-up to Andy Roddick. He is currently 44th and said he'll decide at the end of the season whether or not to retire.

He'll base his choice primarily on how fit he feels, but also where he's ranked.

"If my ranking goes down to 80 or 90," Ferrero said, "maybe I'll quit."