When it comes to comeback stories, no single player has captured the imagination of the tennis world quite like Brian Baker. Making his Wimbledon main draw debut at the ripe age of 27, Baker is into the third round without losing a set after defeating Jarkko Nieminen, 6-0, 6-2, 6-4, as he continues to write another scene in his made-for-Hollywood script.
The knowledgable Wimbledon fans were packed in tightly around Court 9 to catch a glimpse of the Cinderella Man from Tennessee. But once there, they struggled to figure out which of the two men dressed in white was the plucky American who was playing only his second match at Wimbledon since 2005, when he last tried to qualify.
Surely it couldn't be the man who reeled off eight straight games to start the match and looked as natural as can be on the turf. Hidden beneath a white baseball cap pulled low on his brow, Baker played pitch-perfect tennis behind his highly effective serve. Nieminen, who looked understandably fatigued from his first round match (a five-set upset of No.14 seed Feliciano Lopez), struggled to get his returns in play. The points were mercilessly short and Baker secured the first set 6-0 in 19 minutes. Surely it takes more than 19 minutes to bake an actual bagel.
It was more of the same in the second set, as Baker continued to ride his serve and break Nieminen at will. Nieminen's legs were clearly shot and Baker smartly ran him wide into the tramlines as he struggled to change direction and recover back into the court. But the Fin seemed to finally find his range in the third set, finding his rhythm on Baker's serve and putting more pressure on the American in the rally. Nieminen finally found his rhythm on his serve as well, allowing him to hold with greater ease.
But this is where it's important to remember that Baker has years of maturity behind him. At 3-3, he seemed to realise that staying at the back of the court was getting him killed, so he adjusted his tactics to get to the net as much as possible. The change paid off immediately. The American earned a break point with a beautiful forehand volley at the net and then Nieminen, perhaps feeling the pressure, double-faulted to hand him the game. That break was all Baker needed, as he continued to ride the wave of his first serve and aggressive net game to finish the match. Overall it was a surprisingly easy win for Baker, who hit 34 winners to only eight unforced errors, compared to Nieminen's 18 winners and 21 unforced errors.
It was a confidence-building win for a guy who admits he wasn't feeling comfortable on the grass a week ago. "I haven't played a lot on it," Baker admitted during an appearance on Live at Wimbledon. "I was calling home and saying 'I can't play on this stuff it's so hard'. But now I feel pretty good on it."
One year ago, Baker was ranked no higher than you, me, or any of the 99.9 per cent of the world's population who don't play professional tennis. Once a promising American junior who played alongside (and beat) players like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, and Marcos Baghdatis, Baker's career was cruelly halted by career-threatening injury after injury. Three hip surgeries, a sports hernia, and Tommy Johns elbow surgery left him off the tour for almost six years. Instead of being a touring professional and travelling the globe, Baker became an assistant tennis coach at Belmont University in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.
Last year, Baker's body finally felt healthy, and in a quintessential display of American do-it-yourself ethos, he packed his racket bag and a stringing machine into the trunk of his car and drove to a small ATP challenger event in Pennsylvania. He won the title, earned his first rankings points in almost four years, and emerged No.752 in the world. From there, the softy spoken guy from the South has continued to do things the hard way, playing well enough in the spring to earn a French Open wild card and winning his first Grand Slam match since that US Open win in 2005. A week before that, he marched all the way to the final of a clay court tournament in Nice, beating Gael Monfils and Nikolay Davydenko along the way. Now he's won five matches at Wimbledon (winning three to qualify for the main draw) and looks as comfortable as can be.
Like any good Hollywood movie, we all sit on the edge of our seats, popcorn in hand, to see how the next act unfolds.