Brian Baker breezes into US Open's 2nd round
After Brian Baker won his first match at the U.S. Open since 2005, he spoke to the crowd during an on-court interview, then slung a racket bag and black backpack over his shoulders and went over to sign autographs for fans shouting his name.
Just like any other professional tennis player.
It's been quite some time since Baker held that sort of status.
Returning to Flushing Meadows after a seven-year absence brought about by a series of operations, the 27-year-old Baker, from Nashville, Tenn., moved into the second round by beating 92nd-ranked Jan Hajek of the Czech Republic 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 on Wednesday.
''Being older and knowing how (easily) the game was taken away from me, it's very easy to appreciate it a lot. I don't take anything for granted,'' Baker said. ''I remember several years, watching it on TV, wishing I was here, so just to be here is an awesome feeling. And then at the same time, the competitive side kicks over, and I want to do really well.''
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's always exciting to play the Open, but that was another sense of just pride - knowing I had done it on my own,'' Baker said. ''I hope to be able to play several more U.S. Opens, but I don't take any of them for granted. My mind is in the present right now, and I still have a long way to go this next couple of weeks.''
Next up is a second-round match against eighth-seeded Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia.
Tipsarevic needed more than 3 1/2 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.
''I haven't played him since junior Wimbledon; might have been like 2001 or 2002. Haven't even practiced with him since then,'' Baker said about Tipsarevic, a quarterfinalist in New York last year, while Baker was following the tournament from afar. ''I'll have to get the game plan together and watch some tape and try to formulate something that will be in my favor.''
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 5 1/2 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, as he reached the second round as a wild card at the French Open, then qualified for Wimbledon en route to the fourth round there.
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.''
When they finished playing on Court 11, fans cried out for the winner, screaming, ''Way to go, Brian Baker!'' or ''Yeah, Brian!''
His remarkable career comeback sounds like something lifted from the pages of a novel or a Hollywood script.
And he hopes it keeps going.
''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.''
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