Steve Baker needed some bodies for his recreational tennis team.
It was an adult league, which included many 50- and 60-year-olds, but Steve invited his 20-something son Brian to join the Middle Tennessee Tennis League team last summer.
“We were hoping for older people,” Steve said. “We needed some young talent on our team to make it competitive.”
Brian Baker won’t be available this year. He’s back on the professional circuit — and in the French Open.
“To go from our MTTL team to the French Open in a year ... doesn’t have any precedence,” an elated Steve said on Thursday. “It is a miracle he’s getting to have this ride so we’re enjoying it all the way.”
Steve and his wife, Jackie, along with Brian’s older siblings, Art and Kathryn, and two of Steve’s brothers and their wives were scheduled on a flight Friday morning bound for Paris. The French Open draw is announced Friday and the tournament begins Sunday on the historic clay surface at Roland Garros.
Brian, a Hillwood High graduate and former Belmont assistant coach, has been there for more than a week in preparation for his first Grand Slam since the 2005 U.S. Open.
Playing at the Open de Nice, a prelude to the French Open, the 27-year-old Baker knocked off 13th-ranked Gael Monfils on Wednesday and Mikhail Kukushkin on Thursday to advance to his first ATP semifinals. The win against Monfils was his first win over a top 50 ATP opponent since 2006.
Baker, who has won 14 straight matches, plays former top-five star Nikolay Davydenko on Friday. The winner of the tournament receives $91,000.
“It hasn’t quite sunk in yet but when I get back to the hotel room, I’m sure there will be a lot of people calling me,” Baker told reporters on Thursday. “I felt like if I kept on playing my game, I’d have a chance to win.”
Baker’s return to relevance in professional tennis is gaining interest nationally and internationally.
After graduating as valedictorian from Hillwood in 2003 he passed on multiple Division I scholarship offers to turn pro. He quickly moved up the ladder, ranking as high as 172nd on the ATP tour in 2004. The next year, at 20, he upset ninth-seeded Gaston Gaudio in the first round of the U.S. Open.
In the fall of 2005, Baker began experiencing pain in his left hip. He underwent surgery and returned to the courts four months later. But his trips to the emergency room were just beginning. Over the next two years, he had operations for a sports hernia, his left hip again and his right hip.
Just as he was set to return, he suffered an elbow injury in 2008, requiring Tommy John surgery usually more common with pitchers. His recovery took longer than expected and he sat idle for three years.
In 2008, at 23, he enrolled at Belmont to pursue a business degree and joined the coaching staff for the men’s tennis team.
“Brian I don’t think ever gave up hope of going back out,” Steve said. “He needed to go to college, got wrapped up in college and got used to not being on tour. It took quite an adjustment for a while. Early on Brian did not care to watch the tennis matches, didn’t want to talk about it. It was tough for him.
“It was just a very long time to see him not try to use his talent.”
In 2010, he played in a handful of tournaments, winning three, but battled soreness afterwards.
Then last summer he entered an ITF Futures tournament in Pittsburgh and captured the title without dropping a set. As his pain threshold rose, so did his confidence.
“He just didn’t want to go back and do so-so and be ranked 300 or something in the world,” Steve said. “He wanted to go back and play the Grand Slams.”
In the fall, he withdrew from Belmont, one year shy of his degree, and jumped into the Challenger tour. Since then he has earned $16,500 and gone from unranked to 216th in the ATP rankings. The biggest chapter – to this point – of his comeback came last month when he won the Savannah Challenger title, which earned him the USTA’s wild card berth for the French Open.
“I was so elated,” Steve said. “It was emotional to me because I could see his emotions were quite more than what he would normally have after a win. He worked really hard to get that opportunity. Part of this story for Brian is the comeback from the injuries. But the other part of it is the validation that he’s still a darn good tennis player.”