Philadelphia, PA – Not only is once-promising American Brian Baker still alive on the men's tennis tour, he received a wild card into the upcoming French Open last weekend.
The now 27-year-old was considered to be an up-and-coming, can't-miss star the previous decade before a series of ailments, including a reconstructed elbow, derailed his tennis future. He could even play well on clay, a rarity for American men these days.
And speaking of clay, the determined Nashville, Tenn., native received the lone American men's wild card into the French Open after finishing with the best combined results at a pair of USTA Pro Circuit clay-court challenger events -- a $100,000 tournament in Sarasota, Fla., and a $50,000 event in Savannah, Ga. Baker won the title in Savannah this past Sunday and reached the second round in Sarasota as a qualifier at both tourneys. The title was his first one since 2004.
The USTA and French Tennis Federation have a reciprocal agreement in which they exchange wild cards into the French and U.S. Opens.
"This is the reason why I came back and tried to play again," Baker said. "I wasn't coming back to try and get into the Top 200. I came back to play in Grand Slams. It might have happened a little sooner than expected, but I'm excited to try and have a good result."
Baker, who just turned 27 on Monday, currently rests at No. 214 in the world after climbing 79 spots in the ATP Rankings this week. It marks his highest ranking since February 2006. He's won a pair of USTA Pro Circuit Futures events this year after starting 2012 at No. 456 on the planet.
The 6-foot-3 Baker returned to professional tennis last year after undergoing no less than five surgeries for a series of injuries from 2005 to 2008.
The biggest procedure was a Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in February 2008.
Back in 2005, Baker reached the second round of the U.S. Open by stunning then-No. 9 seed and 2004 French Open champ Gaston Gaudio. It marked Baker's only appearance in the main draw of a Grand Slam event.
He was an outstanding junior player, peaking at No. 2 in the ITF World Junior Rankings in 2003 after reaching the boys' singles final at the French Open and capturing the 2002 Orange Bowl International -- a prestigious junior tennis event. The 2001 Orange Bowl winner was two-time French Open runner-up Robin Soderling, while the 2003 victor in Miami was former Aussie Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis. Some other Orange Bowl winners that you may have heard of are former world No. 1s Roger Federer, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, and Andy Roddick. I think you get the picture. It's a big deal for an aspiring tennis star to win the Orange Bowl.
Baker also posted a number of big wins as a junior, including ones over current world Top 10 stars and former Grand Slam finalists Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray, but his body began to deconstruct along the way.
He was effectively out of the game for six years, thanks to the TJ surgery, a trio of hip operations and a sports-related hernia surgery.
"You try not to play that guessing game on what could have been," Baker said. "I'm not going to lie. I was pretty disappointed when I had to sit out all that time. It was pretty tough to watch all the guys on TV having tons of success. I had to learn to deal with it. You can't fight the things you can't control. I tried to stay positive and hoped that one day I would be able to give it another go."
While he was away from the game, Baker served as an assistant coach at Belmont University in Nashville, where he also was enrolled as a student.
I didn't author this piece to suggest that Baker has a shot at the Top 20. It's just nice to see someone stick to his guns and chase his dreams.
Baker's hoping he can dream big in Paris later this month ...