Baker's professional resurgence leaves an opening on Belmont tennis staff

Tuesday, August 28, 2012 at 11:06pm

As Brian Baker jumped around the United States this summer before and after his memorable runs at the French Open and Wimbledon, Jim Madrigal sat nearby.

Madrigal traveled to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. and served as coach during each stop of Baker's improbable comeback to professional tennis. He’ll take a similar seat this week in New York as Baker plays in the U.S. Open for the first time since 2005.

Madrigal will lend “psychological support" to the Nashville native whose promising career was derailed five years by injuries.

It is a role reversal of sorts given that Baker offered similar aid from 2008-11 when he served as Belmont’s assistant coach. Now with his world ranking in the 70s, he no longer can help the Bruins on a full-time basis.

So as he enters his 16th season as Belmont’s head men’s tennis coach, Madrigal has opted not to fill Baker’s position. He hopes to hire another full-time assistant by next fall but for the upcoming season he turns to volunteer assistants Zach Zola and Rodrigo Amaral.

“When you come to college you do learn quite a bit but he was more of a support system,” Madrigal said of Baker. “Coaching obviously goes on but it’s more just general support [in college], lending experience. His stories, his experience and just reflection of his time playing are invaluable. But we’ll be OK.

"Each program goes through this each year. Coaches come and go. We just learn how to work with it. The guys we’ve got are good too. They’ve got obviously not professional experience but they’ve got good college experience.”

Madrigal can vouch for that experience. He (and Baker) coached both Zola and Amaral.

Zola, who spent his prep years at the University School of Nashville, played at Belmont from 2006-10 and has been a volunteer assistant since January. Amaral, a former two-time All-Atlantic Sun standout, graduated in the spring after setting the school record for most singles wins (64). He’ll chip in when he’s not helping the women’s team as a graduate assistant.

“It is fine for this year,” Madrigal said. “I’m very happy with the guys we’ve got.”

Baker stopped by Belmont when he could last year but relinquished his full-time duties – and withdrew from classes one year shy of his degree – as he leaped back onto the professional circuit.

He has left an impact on the program, though. Madrigal has seen increased interest around Belmont tennis since the 27-year-old Baker hit the big stage this summer. He hopes the positive exposure will trickle down to recruiting, especially stateside.

Belmont’s five-player roster is riddled with international talent – four players hail from Brazil and an incoming freshman from Sweden – but is without an American-born player. Minimal resources – the men have only 4.5 scholarships while the women have a max of eight – and a low profile have limited the Bruins.

“It’s just a tough thing because your typical, top-level American kid may look to an SEC school or a Big 10 school or Pac 10 school or one of the huge programs,” Madrigal said. “A lot of times we’re not a big enough school to attract those types of players. We still have an obligation to field a good team. So international seems to be the route we’ve been going.”

Belmont kicks off its first season as a member of the Ohio Valley Conference on Sept. 14 in the River Forest Collegiate Invitational outside of Chicago. Madrigal expects to be back in Nashville well before then but has currently handed over the reins to Zola and Amaral.

The U.S. Open continues through Sept. 9 and Baker hopes to add to his string of long runs in Grand Slams. Baker's first-round match against Jan Hajek of the Czech Republic is scheduled for Wednesday.

Madrigal, who is also a tennis pro at Centennial Sportsplex, first offered Baker private lessons 12 years ago. While the speed of Baker’s return surprised Madrigal, he knew firsthand that Baker was talented enough.

“He does some things that most guys can’t do as far as hand-eye coordination, seeing the ball and understanding the game,” Baker said. “Those kinds of things don’t ever change. The fact that he was injured for so long was a setback but you can’t take away the fact that the guy has ridiculous talent.”