Brian Baker, who made an inspiring comeback last season after years of injury problems, retired from his second-round match against fellow American Sam Querrey at the Australian Open on Wednesday because of a serious knee injury. (Update: Baker has been diagnosed with a torn meniscus and is expected to miss four months.)
Baker, ranked 59th and making his first appearance at the Australian Open, was leading 7-6 (2), 1-1 when he was pulled wide for a routine backhand. When he went to change directions, his right knee buckled. Unable to put any weight on his leg, Baker hopped to his chair to wait for the trainer. After a few minutes of evaluation during which Baker writhed in pain, he finally shook his head, shook Querrey's hand and waited for a wheelchair. It was heartbreaking for Baker, who could do nothing but sit with his head in his hands.
"He said he kind of just felt his knee almost buckle and kind of heard like a pop or a snap," Querrey said. "He didn't know if it was bones or a tear, but he couldn't straighten it, couldn't walk. I feel awful for him."
Baker's comeback from five surgeries from 2005-08 -- three on his hips, one to repair a sports hernia and Tommy John surgery on his elbow -- was one of the feel-good stories of 2012. He spent the summer turning patronizing skeptics ("Oh, that's a nice but flash-in-the-pan story") into true believers. Finally healthy again, the 27-year-old former junior standout from Tennessee got his shot at a prolonged and sustained stretch on tour, winning his first Slam match in seven years (at the French Open), making the Round of 16 at Wimbledon two weeks later and reaching his first ATP final (in Nice, France).
This was going to be the year Baker went from a novelty act to an established threat. With a balanced game that almost seems like a throwback -- hey look, he comes to the net! -- he could be a surefire threat for titles at the second-tier ATP tournaments. As he showed last year, he's one of the few Americans who can play on both specialty surfaces, clay and grass. Now the question is, depending on the severity of the knee injury, whether Baker has it in him for yet another comeback.
"He's the last person that deserves anything like that with his five or six surgeries already," Querrey said. "He does everything right, treats his body great, just trying to come back, and then something like that happens, it's just so unlucky.
Baker's injury is just another blow to American men's tennis, which has come out of the gates limping in the post-Andy Roddick era. Mardy Fish and John Isner were already forced to skip the Australian Open due to illness and injury. Baker's retirement puts No. 20 Querrey, the only seeded American, into the third round, where he gets No. 15 Stanislas Wawrinka. With three other unseeded Americans taking on seeds in the second round, all eyes will be on the laid-back Californian to carry the American hopes. If Querrey doesn't win his next match, that could mean no American men into the first weekend in Melbourne for a second straight year.