published Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Wiedmer: Nashville's Brian Baker keeps proving net experts wrong

By the time you read this, the best story of the year in men's professional tennis could be on temporary hiatus.

That's because Belmont University assistant coach Brian Baker's unlikely appearance in the second round of this afternoon's French Open runs up against 11th-seeded Gilles Simon.

But when you consider that the 27-year-old Baker was preparing to win our town's TVOC men's open title this time last year, the fact that the Nashville native even reached the French is -- to borrow the words of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's coach Jeff Clark -- "really cool."

When Baker was forced to endure five major surgeries in six years -- everything from hips to knees to wrist to a sports hernia to Tommy John surgery on his right elbow -- his once-shimmering pro career appeared really cold, if not permanently frozen.

Or as former pro player turned broadcaster Justin Gimelstob told the New York Times last week: "Either one of those surgeries [elbow or hips], and you're lucky if you're not selling insurance."

Instead, when Baker arrived in Paris over the weekend fresh off a tough tourney final loss to Nicolas Amalgro in Nice, he sought out Gimelstob to practice with because he didn't know anybody else.

Said Gimelstob on the Tennis Channel during Baker's stunning first-round win over Xavier Malisse on Monday: "This just doesn't happen. It's one of the great stories in the history of our sport."

How great a story? Two weeks ago the Wall Street Journal devoted the entire back page of its sports section to Baker.

As an Ole Miss assistant in 2002, Clark attempted to recruit Baker. When he played the TVOC at Manker Patten last June, Clark warmed him up a couple of times.

"He's always been an awesome player," the Lady Mocs coach said. "I remember watching him hit with the Williams sisters on Arthur Ashe Day before the U.S. Open one year. He was 12 years old. He was one of the best juniors in the world. But then he had so many injuries."

Clark paused, then made a stunning point: "In how many other sports could this happen? If you had five major surgeries in any other sport and missed six years of competition, you're not getting a contract. No way."

But Baker wouldn't give up. He played Futures tournaments and Challenger tournaments, finally earning a wild card to the French last month.

Then came Nice and a semifinal match against Nikolay Davydenko, once the No. 3 player in the world.

Manker Patten pro Ned Caswell says of Baker, "He's easy to cheer for; there's never been any prima donna in him at all."

But Belmont coach Jim Madrigal can give you details about that Davydenko match to underscore Baker's makeup.

"Heading into that match, Brian was on a 14-match winning streak and he'd worn a blue Athletic DNA shirt for every one of those matches," Madrigal explained. "I've got a kid here who wanted him to wear a green one against Davydenko. Remember, 14 straight wins. But I texted him the request. He texted me back, 'I'm playing pretty well in the blue.' But when I turned the match on, there was Brian wearing a green shirt. And he won.'"

He lost the championship to Amalgro the following day, then caught a train to Paris. The very next day he beat Malisse in Baker's ninth match in 10 days.

In what could become a goes-around-comes-around moment, should Baker get past Simon, he could face Stanislaw Wawrinka in the third round. Wawrinka beat Baker in the French juniors final in 2003.

"Other than the big four [Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray] I don't think there's anybody Brian can't beat," Madrigal said. "We talk a couple of times a day. He knows he's on borrowed time."

Caswell knows the TVOC probably won't have Baker around this time next week to defend his title.

"I would say no way," he said with a laugh. "But I guess stranger things have happened."

After six years away from the sport, Baker proves that every day.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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