Wimbledon 2012: Brian Baker's long road to the last 16

Brian Baker's students at Belmont University may be growing tired of being shown up by their assistant coach.

Baker's exploits fill every slot of the news section of the University tennis club's website,  but then the 27-year-old is racking up the column inches far afield from Nashville after advancing to the last 16 of Wimbledon.

Less than a year a go, he did not have a ranking and had to beg a wildcard to even get into qualifying for a third-tier Futures event back in Pittsburgh.

Analysis

"He was the top junior in the States and one of the best in the world. He played Novak Djokovic in the first round of qualifying here in 2005. Brian had to retire from that match because of injury and that was really the start of that long road of injury after injury.

"You think of the mental process of that. The rehab and coming back, and then watching on television with all your fellow peers doing so well.

"It is a tremendous story to have returned from that many surgeries. Just to come back from 'Tommy John' surgery [an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction] on the elbow alone is quite spectacular.

"With this result he'll go back in the top 100 which makes life so much easier because you get directly into the Grand Slams."

Once ranked second in the world as a junior, Baker's standing in the game had been eroded by a run of injuries that restricted him to just two brief appearances on the Challenger Tour in the previous five and a half years.

"Last year in the summer I said, 'Hey, I'm feeling a little bit better, let's go out to try to do something,'" he explained.

"When you have zero points you are at the mercy of the draw if you get into qualification even.

"I don't know if someone pulled out or not in Pittsburgh, but I think I got a call on Thursday evening.

"I left the next morning and drove up there because it was tough to get a flight.

"I signed up for qualifiers and started the next day.

"I was able to win three qualifying matches and then the five main draw matches without losing a set."

That might have been enough for a player who feared he would never step on court again after surgery on his left hip in 2005 was followed by another four operations on a hernia, his right hip, his left hip again and, finally, his right elbow.

Instead he pressed on, hitting the road, seeking out increasingly competitive events on the second-tier Challenger circuit and starting a long, steep climb up the rankings.

Roddick on Baker

"He was probably the best junior I'd seen. He had the tools.

We're all so obsessed in our little moments, and all of a sudden you think, Gosh, where is that guy?

Then you hear he's coming back. That's good. But you don't really take it too seriously. Then all of a sudden he's healthy and he's still got the game.

It's just great to see. Everyone loves a comeback story. All of a sudden he decided he was going to go for it again. It's pretty remarkable.

You think of people who are off for six months and it's tough to come back. Hell, six years, I can't imagine that."

He put on hold the job he had taken on at Belmont and by the end of the 2011 he had risen to 458th in the world.

He qualified for the main draw of an ATP event for the first time since his comeback at the French Open warm-up in Nice in May, and beat Gael Monfils and Nikolay Davydenko on his way to the final.

That carried him into the main draw at Roland Garros where his loss in a five-set tussle with home favourite Gilles Simon was one of the stories of the second round.

He played at Queen's, the first time on grass in seven years, and admitted it was "pretty awful" as he lost in the first round. But three qualifying wins for Wimbledon saw him in to the first round proper and Rui Machado, Jarkko Nieminen and Benoit Paire are the latest to fall victim to Baker's resurgence. German 27th seed Philipp Kohlschreiber is next in his sights at the All England Club on Monday.

"I always knew I was a good player," he added.

"It was just whether the body would cooperate and whether I could get more than even six, eight, 12 months healthy and able to play.

Baker's rankings rollercoaster

  • 2002: 614
  • 2003: 422
  • 2004: 178
  • 2005: 205
  • 2006: 1078
  • 2007: 842
  • 2008: 1067
  • 2009: Not ranked
  • 2010: Not ranked
  • 2011: 456

"I wasn't that disappointed that I didn't get a wildcard for Wimbledon. I needed the match practice on the courts.

"My only grass court match on surfaces like this in the last seven years was at Queen's qualification and I lost.

"I didn't feel I was comfortable on the stuff.

"If I ever get a chance to play on Centre Court, it would be great. Ever since a child, I've always dreamed it would be great to play on Centre Court at Wimbledon."

That would certainly justify a fresh entry on the Belmont tennis website.

It might be worth starting advertising for a new assistant coach either way.