Comeback continues: Baker's game improving with each match
Brian Baker reached Wimbledon's 4rth round with a four-set win over Benoit Paire
Paire's drive to win seemed to melt away, but Baker is steadily finding his footing
The 27-year-old's remarkable comeback story is required reading for tennis fans
WIMBLEDON, England -- Brian Baker must feel as if has truly arrived. He put together such a comprehensive performance at Wimbledon on Saturday, he broke his opponent's spirit.
There was much to like about Baker's third-round match against Benoit Paire, the clever and talented Frenchman, at least at the start. This would be a matchup of Baker's textbook groundstrokes against the ingenuity of Paire, who solidified his grass-court credentials with a straight-set thrashing of Alexander Dolgopolov in the second round.
Paire, however, could use a few lessons in competitive drive. His desire seems to weaken when his game flies off the rails, and for anyone witnessing Baker's 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 win on Court 3, that was a shame. From the standpoint of pure tennis, the two appeared to be on even terms.
Baker is no longer a mystery to tennis fans, his comeback story now a part of essential Tour conversation. Put simply, it took him six years to get back in the game after multiple surgeries, the worst of which was a Tommy John elbow procedure that had him seriously wondering if he'd ever swing a racket at full strength again.
Just 12 months ago, in a what-the-heck decision to resurrect a dormant career, he was playing the qualifying of a $10,000 Futures event in Pittsburgh. Something clicked, however, and rather hastily. He gained some attention by reaching the final of Nice in May, and then he reached the second round of the French Open, giving Gilles Simon a five-set challenge before bowing out.
Having gone a full seven years without stepping on a grass court, Baker had no idea what to expect. Ranked 126th in the world and denied a Wimbledon wild card (a decision some found a bit cruel), he entered the qualifying and "played three really good matches," he said. "By the time that was over, I felt like I had my footing on grass. It helped me tremendously."
Then came the second round of Wimbledon, when an inspired Baker blew veteran Jarkko Niemenen off the court, 6-0, 6-2, 6-4. "I'd be lying if I sat here and said I expected all this to happen right now, when I was going through all those surgeries," he said after that match. "It's been such a pleasant surprise. But I never gave up hope that I'd be able to come back."
As much as people talk about Baker's backhand, a real thing of beauty, he can handle himself around the net. When he broke Paire's serve for a 5-4 lead in the first set, it came when he raced in behind a forehand, flicked a difficult forehand half-volley, then answered Paire's searing backhand with a backhand volley winner.
Paire began to lose his composure in the second set, blasting his chair with his racket after Baker broke for a 3-2 lead, but he got a bit of luck with Baker serving at 4-5 and 15-40. Paire cracked an apparent backhand winner that was called out, but the Hawk-Eye replay told a different story, and suddenly the set was over.
As Baker raced to a 4-1 lead in the third, Paire's body language descended into a prolonged, unbecoming snit. He was cited for an unsportsmanlike conduct warning after blasting his bag with his racket during a changeover. As the lopsided set ended, Paire gave every indication of tanking the final point, horribly netting a backhand drop shot.
Baker, who committed exactly one unforced error in that set, wasn't about to give Paire any reason to believe. He ran off 18 of 19 points at one stage, and although the Frenchman rallied his spirits to a degree, the issue seemed well decided.
"Yeah, he was a little ... you could tell that in some games he'd take off a little bit, then slap a couple of winners in a row and get back into it," Baker said afterward. "It's difficult playing a guy like that, because it's hard to get into any kind of rhythm. But I try not to pay much attention to that. I just try to concentrate on being successful out there, and I did that."
Over on Court 12, the matter of Baker's next opponent was being decided. Lukas Rosol, conqueror of Rafael Nadal, was contesting Philipp Kohlschreiber in a match virtually no one thought he could win. The 100th-ranked Rosol is a journeyman, and nothing more, and sure enough, he was banished in three sets by the 30th-ranked German.
"I think I played doubles against Kohlschreiber a long, long time ago, but never in singles," said Baker. "So it will be a new experience for both of us. He's obviously a very good player. That's going to be a real test."
It's remarkable, though: Baker has reached the point where a victory in that match is well within the realm of possibility. "This is hard to put into words," he said. "it's kind of crazy, what's going on. I'm trying not to get wrapped up in it. I don't want to be all happy and 'Oh my gosh, I'm in the fourth round of Wimbledon!' The big thing for me is that in key moments of a match, I'm confident that I don't have to step outside my comfort zone. My game's good enough."
His story, so thoroughly improbable, is even better.