Brian Baker's remarkable comeback from a series of operations has him back in the U.S. Open for the first time since 2005 — and into the second round, too.
Returning to Flushing Meadows after a seven-year absence, the 27-year-old Baker, of Nashville, Tenn., beat 92nd-ranked Jan Hajek of the Czech Republic 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 on Wednesday.
"This is the American championship," Baker said. "This is the one I'm excited to play."
Baker began the year ranked 458th but is now 70th. Getting his ranking up allowed him to get direct entry into the main draw at the U.S. Open, the first time in his career that he didn't need a wild-card invitation or make it through qualifying to earn a spot in the field at a Grand Slam tournament.
"It means everything. Everybody knows I've gone through a hard time, and this is where I've had some of my best memories," Baker said. "I was probably a little more nervous coming out here than I wanted to be. But seven years is a long time, and I'm glad I got it done today."
He reached the second round as a wild card at this year's French Open, then qualified for Wimbledon en route to the fourth round there.
Baker was an up-and-comer who reached the French Open junior final as a teenager in 2003. But a couple of months after playing in the 2005 U.S. Open as a wild card and winning one match, Baker needed left hip surgery.
That began a stretch of about 5½ years when he played in two low-tier tournaments — and had five operations. That list includes a second left hip procedure, another on his right hip, a sports hernia repair, and reconstructive surgery on his right elbow that is increasingly common among baseball pitchers and is known as Tommy John surgery.
Baker's story has captivated the tennis world during the past few months.
Even Hajek was familiar with his opponent's difficult journey back to the upper levels of their sport.
"I wish him to stay healthy and to play maybe better and better," Hajek said.
Against Hajek, who hasn't won a Grand Slam match since the 2010 Australian Open, Baker saved all six break points he faced.
"It's true. That was the key to the first two sets, because I had a lot of break points," Hajek said. "He was playing very solid, serving very well. I had some chances but I didn't get them, so that's why he won. ... It was tough to read his serve."
Afterward, fans at Court 11 yelled out, "Way to go, Brian Baker!" or "Yeah, Brian!" as he signed autographs.
In the second round, Baker will take on No. 8-seeded Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia.
Tipsarevic needed more than 3½ hours to win his opener Wednesday, coming back after dropping the first two sets to eliminate Guillaume Rufin of France 4-6, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2.