Everyone knows the Cinderella fairytale. A girl, deprived of her rightful position in the family, with the help of her fairy godmother, defies all the odds to escape from her situation and attend the ball, where she meets her prince. Entirely unexpected and against all the odds.
The story of Brian Baker seemingly follows the same path. The runner-up at the junior French Open in 2003, he reached #2 in the world as a junior. He was seen as the next big hope of American tennis. Slowly working his way up the rankings, he was given a wildcard into the 2005 US Open, ranked number 195 in the world. Drawn against the world number 9, Gaston Gaudio, who only a year earlier had lifted his first Grand Slam title, he stunned the Argentinean, winning in straight sets.
He would lose in the second round, but he had made an instant impact on the big stage. However, he would not step onto court in a main draw ATP match for almost seven years. In the space of three years after that monumental US Open victory, he would undergo surgery no fewer than five times – twice on his left hip, once on his right hip, once on a hernia, and once on his right elbow.
In the meantime, he would stay involved in the game, working as a tennis coach at Belmont University in Nashville. Naturally, there were dark moments. Speaking to USA Today, he said, “sitting in the operation room, I told myself that I’m not going to keep on coming back, having surgery, prolong my ‘career’, if I can call it that.”
Outside of a short-lived attempted comeback in 2007, the next time he would step onto court at any form of meaningful level was in July 2011. Unranked, having not played a match in almost four years, he was given a wildcard into an ITF tournament in Pittsburgh. Working his way through qualifying into the main draw, he cruised to the title without dropping a set, demonstrating to himself that there could still be a future for him in the game.
His first venture back up to the challenger level saw him lose 6-2, 6-2 to former British number two, Alex Bogdanovic, but he remained undeterred. The following week, he stormed through the draw in Knoxville, losing to Jesse Levine in the final. Savannah, in April 2012, would prove to be the location of Baker’s first challenger title for almost eight years. However, that was just a prelude to his reappearance on the big stage.
Coming through qualifying in Nice was simple, and on the 22nd May, 2012, Brian Baker stepped onto the court for his first full-draw match since his defeat to Malisse at the US Open in 2005. However, he was not simply there to make up the numbers. A sequence of stunning victories, including wins over Gael Monfils and former world number 4, NikolayDavydenko, saw him reach an improbably final. Despite being solidly beaten by Nicolas Almagro, he was back on the road to success.
Fittingly, his first Grand Slam match in eight years came against the same opponent that had beaten him on the previous occasion. This time, Baker beat Malisse in straight sets. Since then, a run to the fourth round at Wimbledon and second round at the US Open has propelled him to the verge of the top 50.
However, it is time to return to the part of the Cinderella tale that is generally left out of these stories. At midnight, the fairy godmother’s magic elapses and Cinderella is forced to flee the ball, returning to her life of servitude. The dark clouds return for now.
Sadly, Baker’s story is following the fairytale almost too closely for his liking. At 7-6, 1-1 ahead against Sam Querrey in the Australian Open, he hit a shot long and crumpled to the ground. Clearly in agony, he was able to make it back to his seat, where he tore his headband off in frustration. He is no stranger to injuries, and you knew from his reaction that he knew this was serious.
Querrey explained in the interview afterwards, “he said he kind of felt his knee almost buckle and kind of heard like a pop or a snap. He didn’t know if it was bones or a tear, but he couldn’t straighten it, couldn’t walk.”
Wheeled off the court in a wheelchair, the tennis world feared the worst, with speculation of a torn ACL – a serious injury for any athlete.
Given those fears, the revelation that he had torn his lateral meniscus and that he would likely miss around four months of the season was almost greeted with a sigh of relief. Naturally it is still a serious injury, but it seems likely that he will be back this year. A sixth surgery will be required, but he is no stranger to that.
Yet, as everybody knows, the Cinderella story does not finish there. It is meant to be a happy fairytale after all. Having lost her slipper at the ball, the prince hunts non-stop until he finds her and rescues her from her situation, ending with the couple living happily ever after.
It is too soon to tell how this injury will impact Baker. However, given the struggles that he has overcome to reach his current position, you know that he will not give up. He has given everything to live his dream. One only hopes that his story will continue to follow that of Cinderella, and that he will achieve his happy ending.