Belmont tennis players were first to get a taste of Baker's comeback potential

Sunday, July 8, 2012 at 7:54pm

Over the last two weeks, Renato Antun rolled out of bed, flipped on the TV and found himself relating to tennis players more than four thousand miles away.

Rui Machado, Jarkko Nieminen and Benoit Paire — Antun feels your pain. The only difference is he felt the wrath of Nashville native Brian Baker four years earlier on the tennis courts at Belmont — not on the grass surface at Wimbledon.

Antun, a native of Brazil, arrived at Belmont as a freshman in 2008. That same fall, Baker, 23 at the time, enrolled as well and accepted an assistant coach position with the Bruins' men's tennis team. Thus, Antun got a first-hand look at Baker well before his shocking wins at the French Open (one) and Wimbledon (three), the latest chapter in a comeback story that featured a six-year layoff from professional tennis due to numerous injuries and surgeries.

“He was a level above all of us,” Antun, 22, said. “We all knew the potential that he had. The only thing was whether his body would cooperate with him or not. ... It seems like right now he’s being able to stay healthy and that is showing in the results.”

Baker’s ride at Wimbledon ended earlier this week with a loss to Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber in the round of 16. The three wins, however, should propel his world ranking as high as 78th and earn him an automatic spot in the U.S. Open in August. He also received a wild card to play in the BB&T Atlanta Open, which begins Saturday and is the first men’s event in the Emirate Airlines US Open Series.

The 27-year-old Baker, who turned pro in 2003 after graduating from Hillwood High, started 2012 ranked 456th.

“It’s been a lot of fun these last two months, and I'm definitely not satisfied,” Baker told reporters after his loss to Kohlschreiber. “Like [on Tuesday], I was pretty frustrated after the match. I'm looking forward to doing bigger and better things.”

The events of the last couple months have not shocked Antun, who graduated this spring but has one year of eligibility remaining. Though Baker’s serve isn’t overpowering, Antun says his placement keeps his opponents on their toes.

However, his biggest strength, according to Antun, is when he is on the defensive.

“The best part of his game I think is his [service] return,” he said. “He hits the ball early and starts off the point very aggressive. He pressures you a lot on the second serve and a lot of guys start double-faulting. You start trying to go for more than what you have to and he gets a lot of points that way.

“You’re always off-balance, kind of one step behind. He is always in control of the point.”

Baker often talked of a possible return to the professional circuit while running his Belmont understudies all over the court. But two good months of practice always seemed to be followed by a setback.

“The only thing that was really setting him back was his body,” Antun said.

When his surgically repaired hip and elbow finally did cooperate and the pain was tolerable, Baker took a chance and drove to Pittsburgh last summer to compete in an ITF Futures tournament. He cruised to the championship without dropping a set.

Rejuvenated by that success, he withdrew from Belmont one year shy of a business degree and leapt into the Challenger tour. His decision to return was rewarded in April when he won the Savannah Challenger title and the USTA’s wild card berth for the French Open.

With the busier schedule, Baker had to step away from some of his coaching duties and may be less available during the 2012-13 season. On the cusp of one of the more remarkable tennis comebacks, however, he still stopped by practice from time to time to check on his pupils.

“We’re a small college and he didn’t care about it. He was always trying to help us out,” Antun said. “He knew he was better than all of us — we all knew that. But he always treated us with respect and he always treated us, when we were practicing, as if we were the most important people in the world.”