Baker Hopes For More Good Memories In Savannah
American playing in just fourth tournament of 2016
To continue his latest comeback, onetime tennis prodigy Brian Baker has returned to the ATP Challenger that helped him start the best run of his career nearly four years ago.
In 2012, Baker was 26 and already had endured six surgeries – left knee; left hip, twice; right hip; sports hernia; and elbow reconstruction. He wanted, however, to give his career another shot. Ranked No. 293, Baker first needed to qualify for the Savannah Challenger.
“It started here,” Baker said of Savannah.
On Monday, the 30-year-old American picked up where he left off. Winning 81 per cent of his first-serve points, Baker dismissed his 18-year-old compatriot Tommy Paul, last year's French Open junior boys' champion, 6-3, 6-1 in 58 minutes to move into the second round. At 1-all in the second set, Baker erased the only break point he faced with his only ace and cruised for the remainder of the match.
“It still feels a little different than it does when you've played a million matches,” Baker said. “But once I settled in the first 15 minutes of the match, played a few good games, I think I was able to put pressure on him whenever he hit a shorter ball, and maybe took him out of his game a little bit.”
Baker is playing in just his fourth tournament of 2016. After his 2012 run, which included wins over then-No. 13 Gael Monfils and Benoit Paire, in addition to a career-high Emirates ATP Ranking of No. 52, the Nashville native had to retire from his second-round match at the 2013 Australian Open because of a right-knee injury.
During the next two years, he'd play only 10 matches and undergo five more surgeries, including one to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. The final surgery, in December 2014, repaired cartilage in the same knee. “It's just been a really long recovery,” Baker told the ATPWorldTour.com after that operation.
But on Monday, he showed no signs of any lingering injuries. The former Roland Garros junior boys' finalist slid freely on the Har-Tru, chasing down drop shots and attacking the net against Paul. The only semblance of a brace that Baker wears is a little pre-wrap around his right knee to help stabilize his IT band.
“I still need to get stronger. I need to get faster. I need to get fitter. But as far as pain-wise, it felt good,” he said.
The veteran has taken his time in coming back this year. He used his protected ranking to play in the main draw of the Australian Open and the Miami Open presented by Itau. Earlier this month, he received a wild card into qualifying at the Fayez Sarofim & Co U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship in Houston.
Baker, now ranked No. 800, could use his protected ranking more often earlier in the season and play in more bigger events. But he accepted a wild card to return to Skidaway Island this week so he could gain match experience and enjoy Savannah once more.
Baker stays in a home nearby The Landings Club, and the local fans show him neighbourly love. After his match against Paul, about a handful of supporters congratulated him on his play. “Great to see you back,” one fan said.
“Thank you. I appreciate it,” Baker said.
Despite his favourable memories, he said he's resisted putting any pressure on himself this week or this year. He wants to play 15 to 20 matches and then evaluate his level of play.
“I told myself this tournament... be a little bit nicer to yourself, realise that you're going to play some poor games, you're going to hit some poor shots, but you're playing a lot better and you can do well here, and I think I did that,” Baker said. “It's going to take a little bit of time but (Monday) was a great step in the right direction.”