Baker offers glimmer of hope for U.S. men with run at Wimbledon
Pity the American man. There he stands at his Fourth of July barbecue, poking at his shriveling hot dog. If he's a bit grumpy, who can blame him? Sitcoms paint him as a tubby buffoon, snooty magazines trumpet his demise every third month, and on this day of all days, he'll have woken up, clicked on the TV for a bit of tennis, and found nothing to wave a flag about. The last two Yankee Doodles lost at the All England Club Tuesday.
It was hardly a surprise. Since Andy Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open, no American male has won a major singles title -- and there's little sign of a revival coming. Worse yet, at first blush the U.S. game seems stalled in a doldrums as dull as it is still: Once the top American who began the season with stunning wins over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, John Isner bombed out in Paris, bombed out in the first round here and pronounced his game and mindset a mess. "It's just ugly right now," he said.
Yes, world No. 10 Mardy Fish, coming back from a heart ailment, pieced together three solid wins before being outclassed, 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, 6-4, by Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in Tuesday's fourth round, but he's 30 years old. Roddick, meanwhile, is 29, but his Saturday fade against David Ferrer, as well as his kiss to the crowd after, recharged talk of a coming retirement. Sam Querrey is ranked 64th and remains curiously out of touch with his talent. At 20, Ryan Harrison provides fire and promise, but he hasn't recorded a marquee win all year and seems 12, maybe 24, months away from threatening to play on the final Sunday.
Yet even in these days of reduced expectations, the 2012 Wimbledon championships offered up a sudden glimmer of hope. This has nothing to do with "The Next Great American" or anything close to it; Brian Baker is 27, after all, and his game seems hardly big enough to do Hall of Fame damage. But his dramatic rise, after missing a seemingly insurmountable six years of injury, is so mind-boggling as to be irresistible. It's the most intriguing U.S. tennis story in years.
To be clear: We speak here not of his comeback's most Hollywood aspects, stunning as they are. Baker's five surgeries, his exile as assistant coach at a small Nashville college, his unranked status just a year ago, will make for a fine movie someday. But what's just as astonishing is the fact that Baker's game, despite its complete absence from the winnowing rigors of a tour that by every measure hits harder, deeper and with devastatingly more spin than the one he broke into in 2005, arrived at Wimbledon fully armed. It's as if he walked into the Los Alamos lab in 1945, A-bomb in hand, and announced, "Look what I cooked up in my basement."
"I have wondered how he could have improved his game so much to be able to play at this level -- without having played at this level," said Steve Baker, Brian's father, after his son lost, 6-1, 7-6 (7-4) 6-3, to hot-serving Philipp Kohlschreiber Tuesday. When Brian told him last year that he intended to comeback -- and intended to play well enough to make the main draw of Grand Slam events, Steve figured his chances at somewhere between 30 and 40 percent.
"I'm just amazed," Steve said. "His brother and I would see other matches, even on TV, see people hitting certain balls, and say, 'Brian can play with this guy.' But I didn't really know we were right about that."
Two months ago, Baker came to Europe for the clay-court season ranked 216th, qualified for the Nice tournament and made the final. He nailed a second-round finish in Paris, and by his third match in the Wimbledon qualifier started to gain a rep. "I felt as ridiculous against Baker as I felt last year in Roland Garros against Federer," said Maxime Teixeira, Baker's final victim here in qualifying. "I won the first set but then he was not missing anything. I had no answer to his game."
Baker always had talent. He was the No. 2 junior in the world in 2003, reaching the quarterfinals of junior Wimbledon and the finals of the French. Two years later, he was on the grass here in qualifying, squaring up against a player he'd already beaten that year -- Novak Djokovic. "First game of the match he wrong-footed me and I tore my MCL," Baker said after his third-round win last Friday. "I think I played one more game and retired. I think that was his breakout tournament where he quallied and then got to the [third round]. Hopefully, maybe, this can be mine."
Baker's summertime run this year lifted him into the top 80, earned him $200,870.54 and, in a nicely circular twist, gave him six wins in seven matches on the turf where everything first went wrong. No wonder his dad was still puzzled. "When you haven't played a grass-court match in seven years?" Steve Baker said. "In Nice, he hadn't played an ATP tournament in seven years and he gets to the final. But you can see his touch, his read on other people, his feel for the game."
You can. Baker's is a savvy, all-court construct, anchored by a deadly backhand and highlighted by a deft forehand volley. He knows how to place his serve and can gin it up to 124 mph, but lacks the big weapon, a get-out-of-jail stroke like Querrey's serve or Roddick's old forehand. That was his game long ago, too, a solid foundation upon which he threw, in the last few years, an increased focus on fitness and strength. He also began using a co-poly string for the first time.
"It's not like when I took off six years I didn't hit balls, but I definitely wasn't playing or training against people of this caliber," Brian said Tuesday. "So it was very nice to see that I'm able to step my game up. My game is better than it was when I was playing before. I don't know if I have an exact formula for why that is. A lot of it's confidence. When you're confident you believe in yourself, and during the crucial moments you play your best tennis.
"But I don't think sitting a year ago playing the futures and stuff like that I thought I would have transitioned maybe this fast. That's been a lot of fun, to be able to play some of your best tennis on the biggest stage. That's been the most fun thing to be able to do."
Of course, as the experts love to say, winning tennis is all about time -- earning more for yourself, taking it away from your opponent -- and no one has lost more of that precious element than he. But it's not quite as late as it looks. Kohlschreiber, after all, is 28 and playing better than ever, as is his compatriot and fellow quarterfinalist, Florian Mayer. Boris Becker taps Tsonga, Fish's conqueror, as "the next Grand Slam winner", because at 27 he's playing smarter than he ever did as a phenom. For many reasons, from fitness to equipment, the game is skewing older.
"It's down to these [younger] players are sometime not mature enough," Becker says. "I deal with some of the German players: Mayer and Kohlschreiber are our two best, and at 21, 22 they were great players but they were kids. They didn't know what the hell they were doing, and you couldn't talk to them on a serious note because they wouldn't understand you."
Baker? He's as serious as they come, and oddly unsurprised at his new success: He always knew he was this good. But he's also the first to use that word to describe what he did at Wimbledon this year, and it's a good one. American men won't be great anytime soon, but Baker's next steps deserve your attention. He's going to make it fun.