There has been a lot written about Brian Baker, and rightly so, because of his tennis accomplishments so far during 2012. After 6 years of non participation in competitive tennis, he entered a series of ITF Futures and Challenger events in 2011 and early 2012 in which he played very well. He ultimately received a wild card for the 2012 French Open and the rest is becoming history, a history to which he is continuing to add. As of 23 July 2012, he is the seventh ranked American male singles player.
In 2005, in a qualifying match against Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon, Brian suffered a knee injury that seemed to set the stage for five surgeries in six years; knee surgery to repair a torn medial collateral ligament, right and left hip surgeries to repair a labral tear, Tommy John surgery, and sports hernia surgery.
Let’s take a look at what those surgeries entailed: (1) knee surgery to repair a torn medial collateral ligament (MCL). The MCL is one of the four major ligaments of the knee on the inner side of the knee joint. (2) right and left hip surgeries to repair a labral tear; a tear of the soft elastic tissue that follows the outside rim of the socket of the hip joint. (3) sports hernia surgery to correct a weakening of the muscles or tendons of the lower abdominal wall. (4) Tommy John surgery, named after the former major league baseball pitcher Tommy John, on who the procedure was first performed in 1974. It is a ligament reconstruction where a ligament in the elbow is replaced with a tendon from another part of the body.
Prior to his injuries, Brian was an above average tennis player. In fact, he was featured as Sports Illustrated Amateur Athlete of the Month, was the second ranked junior in the world in 2003, and that same year reached the quarter finals of Wimbledon’s junior tournament and the finals of the French juniors. Some of his contemporaries at that time were Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and we know how well those players have performed since 2003.
Injuries for professional athletes are part of the risk of the game/match. For an elite athlete in any sport, the combination of injuries and surgeries suffered by Brian would signal the end of elite participation. In tennis, few players have come back from surgery and continued to play at an elite level. For some, it was a direct path to retirement for Magnus Norman of Sweden (hip and knee), Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil (hip), and Fernando Gonzalez of Chile (hip and knee). For others it diminished their effectiveness on the court, i.e., Lleyton Hewitt of Australia (hip) and David Nalbandian of Argentina (abdominal, knee, hip).
To return to an elite status in a sport after a six year hiatus is virtually unheard of. Brian has said, “I’ve always been a good ball striker and tennis came easy to me in that way. When you take off that long, it is not just your tennis game that’s different, but learning to play again and performing under pressure.”