By Tim Joyce
Editor's note: This column was submitted before Brian Baker's five-set loss in the second round of today's French Open.
American tennis is at an all-time low, one hears all the time. With only one male ranked in the Top 10, never have we seen such a dearth of talent from the country that has claimed easily the most Grand Slam titles. It has been written about so often that until the next true American Grand Slam threat emerges, the topic need not be brought up.
But at this year's French Open, an American tennis story has rapidly developed that is far more compelling than the tedious discussion of an overhyped up-and-comer. I am speaking of the inspiring story of Brian Baker.
While likely no one besides passionate tennis followers is aware of the unassuming 27-year-old Tennessee native, his straight-set victory Monday in his opening match over former Top 20 player Xavier Malisse is nothing short of stunning. Baker's only prior win in a Slam event had come at the 2005 U.S. Open.
Tennis, even more than golf, is a sport dominated by a small handful of stars. For casual fans, only three men bear watching: Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. These three have accounted for 27 of the last 28 Grand Slam titles, a run of dominance unprecedented in the rich history of the sport.
At one time, Baker wore that dreaded label of "possibly the next American star." His saga has the potential to drown in the clichés that are unerringly accurate in describing a journey back from seemingly career-ending injuries. The overwhelming majority of tennis players exist in anonymity. Which is why it's enjoyable to relay Baker's narrative.
After reaching the finals of the French Open junior championships in 2003, Baker, then 17, was justifiably viewed as someone with significant potential. And with Andy Roddick in his all-too-brief ascent, being ranked No. 1 for the first and only time at the end of 2003, some thought the continuous line of American stars would continue unabated. While Baker was never viewed in the same light as Roddick - or even as the current top Americans, John Isner and Mardy Fish - he was seen as a rarity in American tennis as an all-court player.
But then a relentless and demoralizing series of injuries destroyed - or were thought to destroy - his career. Reading the list of his ailments, it's incredible that he even had a chance to restart, let alone accomplish success in, his career. Baker endured five surgeries in six years - three on his hip, one Tommy John elbow surgery and one for a hernia.
From the time he was 20 to 26, the prime years for any tennis player, Baker was unable to play in a single ATP event. But he never gave up what many considered false hope. While he went through rehab after rehab, Baker continued to be involved in tennis, most notably coaching the men's team at Belmont University in Nashville.
Then, finally, Baker felt good enough last year to enter the qualifying rounds for a Futures event (the Double-A level of the tennis minor leagues) in Pittsburgh. He won the tournament. He then entered a second Futures event, this time in Canada, and won every match he played before withdrawing in the semifinals. And just last month, Baker stepped up a level, entered a Challengers tourney in Savannah, Ga., and won it. His performance in Savannah earned him a wild card from the USTA into the French Open.
One would have thought Baker would rest his newly tested body and prepare for the French Open. But the re-energized player decided to forgo the conservative route and entered the Nice warmup event the week before the French Open. This is where he started to gain significant attention, as he defeated Gael Monfils and Nikolay Davydenko en route to the finals, where he was finally beaten by 13th-ranked Nicolas Almagro.
And now the quiet American has made it to the second round of his first Grand Slam event in seven years. His next opponent will be Frenchman Gilles Simon, who notched a hard-fought victory over - hate to say it - future American star Ryan Harrison.
Can Baker possibly continue his implausible voyage through the draw? After beating several players of Simon's magnitude, it wouldn't be at all shocking if Baker scored another victory. After all, in his first seven days of ATP tournament tennis in six years, Baker has won six of the seven matches he has played.
"I think that's why it makes it so much sweeter 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," Baker said before the tournament. "It's not like I wanted to quit tennis. So it's definitely that much sweeter that I'm able to have success now."
And it's plenty sweet to watch. Who would have thought an American man would be the story at the start of the French Open?
Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports.
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