Qualifier Baker reaches 4th round at Wimbledon
By BARBARA SURK
WIMBLEDON, England (AP) Brian Baker's career can easily be explained with numbers: Five operations, six years away from tennis, a ranking of 458th at the start of this year.
The latest number to add to the list sounds a whole lot better: fourth round of Wimbledon.
Baker's career renaissance just keeps getting better at the All England Club, as the now 126th-ranked American advanced into the second week by beating Benoit Paire of France 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 - a victory that also is expected to move him into the top 80.
"It's been unreal," Baker said. "It's crazy kind of what's going on. But I'm still trying to stay focused on the task at hand and not get too wrapped around."
The ordeal he's been through is helping him remain grounded and focused.
"I've always been confident in my game. I always knew I was a good player," Baker said. "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 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, Baker needed left hip surgery. Then another one on his right hip and after that a second one on his left.
Just as he was returning in 2008, he had to undergo an elbow surgery that required about three years for a full recovery.
"At one point you're like, `Why is my body not cooperating? Am I ever going to get out to play?'" Baker said.
The 27-year-old from Nashville, Tenn., did return.
He played in several clay-court tournaments in the U.S. this year to earn a wild card for the French Open - his first major tournament in 6 1/2 years. He lost to 13th-ranked Gilles Simon in the second round.
It was the clay-court performance in the Nice tournament that boosted Baker's confidence after he reached his first career ATP final. After three wins at Wimbledon, there are a lot of people starting to believe in his ability.
"It's just great to see. Everyone loves a comeback story," said Andy Roddick, the three-time Wimbledon runner-up, who was beaten by David Ferrer of Spain in the third round Saturday.
"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," Roddick said.
"He just fell off the map," said fellow American Mardy Fish, who is playing his first tournament since undergoing a procedure on his heart in May. He beat David Goffin to reach the fourth round at Wimbledon on Saturday.
"He's finally healthy again and it's a great story. He's a really nice kid, really good kid, but guys come and go and it's a tough sport," Fish said.
Wimbledon is Baker's first major grass-court tournament in seven years. He had to go through qualifying just to get into the main draw, before beating Rui Machado and Jarkko Nieminen in his first two matches.
Cheering his every point is his family. After seeing his son endure incredible pain that almost finished his tennis career almost before it started, Baker's father Steve said the family was "treasuring every moment" at the All England Club.
"It's such an unexpected gift. What we are most proud of is that Brian has gotten to be such a good player without playing for seven years," Steve Baker said, adding that his son had kept in shape and worked on his game through all his injury battles.
"He kept his dream alive by doing his work," Steve Baker said.
Wind was the only cause of problems for Baker during Saturday's match against the 55th-ranked Paire.
"It was really blustery out there," Baker said. "Never felt like the wind was even in the same direction every game."
Baker controlled his emotions a bit better than Paire, as the temperamental Frenchmen had a number of tantrums on the court during the two-hour match.
When the American broke his opponent early in the third set to pull ahead 4-1, Paire slammed his racket against his bag, threw a water bottle around, and bit his towel in anger.
"He was a little over there. You could tell that some games it looked like he would take off a little bit, but then he would come up and slap a couple winners, too," Baker said.
Baker will next play 27th-seeded Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany, who beat Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic, 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (6) on Saturday. Rosol stunned Rafael Nadal in the previous round to make Baker's side of the draw a bit easier, but the American still expects a tough challenge.
"I'm sure I'll probably be the underdog again going into the match," Baker said. "I'm kind of happy being the hunter going in there. I know I'll have to play my best match to win because he's a great player."
Updated June 30, 2012