Posted: Wed May 30, 2012 1:39PM; Updated: Fri June 1, 2012 9:58AM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>INSIDE TENNIS

Brian Baker's comeback is tennis meritocracy at finest; more mail

Story Highlights

Once a top junior, Brian Baker's career was derailed by major injuries

At 27, the American's comeback campaign has seen resounding success

Baker pushed No. 11 Gilles Simon to five sets before losing at the French

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Brian Baker
After his career was derailed by injuries, Brian Baker has thrived in his latest comeback attempt.
KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/Getty Images
French Open 2012
Day 16
Day 15
Day 14
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Day 12
Day 11
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Day 9
Previous Coverage

PARIS -- A Mercredi Baguette....

Jeremy Lin? Kurt Warner? Tim Tebow? Roy Hobbs?

You've met your match, albeit a best-of-five match. The Brian Baker story -- maybe the best narrative in contemporary sports -- got even better this afternoon in Paris. Baker lost in the second round of the French Open on Wednesday. But not before pushing Gilles Simon of France, the No. 11 seed and obvious crowd favorite, to five sets on one of tennis' grandest stages.

A year ago, Baker shared an ATP ranking with you and me. That is, he didn't have one at all. Today he is pushing the best players in the sport to the limit. Having played 10 matches in 12 days -- a Baker's dozen at it were -- he can now say with confidence that he belongs. Both his body and his game are built for the highest levels in this line of work, after all.

The story has already taken on a classical ring. To refresh: nine years ago, Baker was among the world's top juniors, a finalist at Roland Garros. He was a likable, quiet kid from Nashville, who spoke softly in a hickory-smoked drawl. As a player, he did everything capably and nothing poorly. He turned pro as a teenager and won a round at the U.S. Open in 2005, beating Gaston Gaudio -- a top 15 player who won the French Open the year before. The future was sweet.

And then came the injuries, ruthlessly, relentlessly. Hips, groin, knee, elbow. He underwent the kind of surgeries that have been the career death knell for many other players. Hip surgery. Twice. Tommy John surgery. Groin surgery. While contemporaries with names like Tsonga, Djokovic and Murray were making their mark and making the millions, Baker was home in Tennessee in perpetual rehab. If he wasn't officially retired, he may as well have been.

Last July 4th weekend... Wait, we forgot to cue the music. There we go. Last July 4th weekend, Baker got a last minute invite to a rinky-dink challenger in Pittsburgh. He loaded up his car, stuck a stringing machine in the trunk, woke up at 4:00 a.m. and drove to a club in Pennsylvania. And he kickstarted his career, winning the title.

Since then the victories have come as relentlessly as the injuries once did. And this highlighted tennis at its meritocratic best. There were no teammates, no coaches to impress, no depth chart to climb, no contracts and salary caps. Win matches and you control your destiny.

Last week, Baker qualified for the event in Nice, his first ATP tournament in more than six years. He went on to reach the final. He won his first match here in Paris against Xavier Malisse, ironically the last player to beat Baker in his previous Grand Slam, the 2005 U.S. Open. Today he fought gallantly against Simon. He leaves ranked roughly No. 126, enough to make many main draws. And shame on events (we're looking at you, Wimbledon) if they deny him a wild card.

There are abundant angles to this story, so many riffs about past glories and lost opportunity and redemption and time refusing to act predictably. But this is also a tennis story, a tale of a guy who's really good at this wacky court game. Baker plays nuanced, cerebral tennis. Few other players -- let alone Americans -- share his mastery of clay. He's as capable as blasting winners as unspooling clever drop shots. Maybe best of all, as he moves around the court, he gives no indication that he spent much of his 20s on the injured list.

Nor does he give any indication that this is a surprise. There are no McCauley Culkin Home Alone looks. He projects no sense of awe. He doesn't do much more than shrug amiably when asked about the Disney script he is authoring.

No, to Baker, this is all a perfectly logical plot. He didn't expect to win today. Neither did he expect to lose. He's just out here, trying to get back to where he once belonged.

Mail call

Hi Jon, I watched Serena Williams' match against Virginie Razzano yesterday and I was shocked, to say the least. How huge is this upset as far as Grand Slam history is concerned? How do you compare it to Kim Clijsters' shocking loss to Arantxa Rus last year?
-- Ahmed Mahmoud, Cairo, Egypt

• Yes, cue the recency effect.

But I have a hard time recalling an upset of this magnitude. Pete Sampras versus George Bastl at Wimbledon 2002 perhaps. My partner in crime, Rennae Stubbs, floated the Hingis-Dokic at Wimbledon 1999. But Hingis was a tempestuous teenager, still smarting from Roland Garros, feuding at the time with her mom. And a big slugger pounding her on grass wasn't a huge shock. Steffi Graf losing to Lori McNeil at Wimbledon? Maybe. But we're already going back two decades here. Plus Lori McNeil was a formidable, athletic player. Virginie Razzano came here ranked No.111.

Take the entire context -- Serena's form and fitness level coming in; the rankings disparity; the absence of injury -- and I'm drawing blank trying to name a bigger upset in the past decade.

Jon, you said, "Unlike Sampras, there's a highly finite number of other players who can match (Serena's) self-belief and competitive instincts." I don't dispute with you on most things, but as a long time Sampras fan, I have to say this is absurd. Sampras was peerless in the department of self-belief and competitive instincts for a good part of the 90s. As john McEnroe would say, "YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!"
-- Muneeb, Lahore, Pakistan

• 1) There is an edict that we no longer use the phrase "you cannot be serious." 2) Sampras has all sorts of self-belief on hardcourt and grass. But clay? You really think deep in his soul, he came to Paris unshakably confident that he would be able to grind through seven matches?

I take no pleasure in saying this. But there was a lot of wishful thinking among American tennis commentators about Serena's chances at the French Open. Yes, she is a great champion. But she has not been a real factor at the majors in some time now.
-- Yves, Montreal

• I don't disagree on either count. But I don't think picking Serena (full disclosure: as I did fairly vocally) was folly. Unlike other events in the past, she came here in form, in shape, absent major injury. She is still a peerless fighter. (See: match points, 8). And who was a preferable choice? Victoria Azarenka, whom Serena mauled on the same surface the last time they played? Maria Sharapova, whom Serena mauled on the same surface the last time they played? Agnieszka Radwanska, who's never been to a major final? Petra Kvitova who's struggled in 2012 and is injured?

Who said Serena was the favorite at this year's French Open? She hasn't won there in 10 years and isn't even the top ranked player. Do Charleston and Madrid prove she was a favorite at the French? Nevermind the chair tried her best to keep Serena in the match...
-- Danny Hayes, Tallahassee, Tenn.

• When Steffi Graf picks you to win, it's validation.

As for the chair umpire, let's revisit this in a few days. But perhaps this Serena-Razzano match -- apart from being a seismic upset -- will become a watershed moment when tennis finally decided to address grunting in a consistent and meaningful way.

Did I just see that Dr. Ivo lost a set 6-0? How is that even possible?
-- Steven K. Pensacola, Fla.

• Point taken. Keep in mind, this is event at which he once served 55 aces in a match.

Shots, miscellany

• Asked this on Twitter: If she played today, Steffi would reach the second week, I reckon.

• Robert of Washington, D.C.: "For anyone visiting Roland Garros, I wanted to give a big plug to Paris' #72 bus. It starts near the Hotel de Ville and goes down the right bank of the Seine past all the major tourist sites (Louvre, Eiffel tower, etc). After about 35 minutes (from where it starts), you are dropped off at the La Tourelle stop which is about a 15 min walk from the south entrance of Roland Garros. As opposed to the hot Metro, it's a great way for anyone staying near the Seine to see the city. Best of all, it wasn't very crowded (in the four times I took it, not a single person on it was going to Roland Garros)."

• Novak Djokovic will keep his winning Wimbledon formula by returning to The Boodles tournament at Stoke Park in Buckinghamshire ahead of this year's Championships. The World No.1 played at The Boodles last year and just over two weeks later he lifted his first Wimbledon trophy. Now Djokovic has chosen to return to the traditional Wimbledon warm-up event to prepare for the defense of his Wimbledon title.

• While we're here: Goran Ivanisevic, Pat Cash, Mark Philippoussis and Henri Leconte have been confirmed to join Tim Henman as part of an all-star field in the Statoil Masters Tennis at the Royal Albert Hall, 5-9 December. They will be joined by Mansour Bahrami and Fabrice Santoro who will also both appear with Leconte on ITV4's coverage of the French Open tomorrow at 9.30am UK time.

• Here are TennisResortsOnline.com's top five tennis resorts for 2012:

1. Kiawah Island Golf Resort, South Carolina
2. Topnotch Resort and Spa, Vermont
3. La Quinta Resort and Club, California
4. Wild Dunes Resort, South Carolina
5. Bio-Hotel Stanglwirt, Tirol, Austria

• Press releasin': "Ever wanted to help set a Guinness World Record? Fans in attendance at the World TeamTennis matchup between the New York Sportimes and the Philadelphia Freedoms on July 19 at Sportime Stadium on Randall's Island will have the opportunity to take part in an attempt to set the official mark for "Most People Bouncing Tennis Balls On Tennis Rackets," prior to the 7 p.m. match, which will feature former world No. 1 and Sportimes star Martina Hingis. Fans interested in participating should arrive at Sportime Stadium by 5 p.m., wear tennis sneakers and bring their rackets. Tennis balls will be provided. All participants must purchase a ticket to that evening's World TeamTennis match. The previous record of 658 was achieved in advance of the 2011 U.S. Open. More information can be found here."

• Greg Brennan of Oxnard, Calif., has today's LLS: Marion Bartoli and Alanis Morissette.

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