ROAD TO RIO | Belmont's Brian Baker hopes next week starts Olympic medal epoch
Tennis player Brian Baker made news for making the Olympic team as the world’s 596th-ranked player.
The ranking is misleading. Baker is more Olympic-caliber than you think.
Baker, 31, was a gifted junior player who has shown flashes of brilliance.
But his pro career has been stymied by a staggering 11 surgeries in a stop-and-go career.
He wound up the fourth-best American — the U.S. can send four men’s singles players to Rio — on the basis of the tennis tour’s “protected ranking” system, which freezes a ranking due to injury. (His was No. 56.) It also helped that both John Isner and Sam Querrey, the two best American players, bowed out to play in other tournaments.
But hey, he’ll take it. It’s about time the guy got a break.
Last week, Baker was named to the Olympic team along with Jack Sock, Steve Johnson and Denis Kudla.
Baker has had so much time off the tour his dad, Steve, has numbered them, like geological eras. (For example, the First Injury Period.)
Baker, who started played at age 2, grew up the youngest of three in a tennis family. Still, he stood out.
“He could play sets when he was five years old,” said Steve Baker. “He could serve into the box, play one-set matches against 9-, 10-, 11-year-olds.”
At 11, he was undefeated in national play. Steve said they got calls from agents. But in a hint of what was to come, Baker missed eight months for knee surgery at age 13, soon after playing in the world 14 and-unders. Later, Stanford offered a tennis scholarship. He turned it down to turn pro in 2003.
In total, Baker missed about six years of peak playing time. He has been hurt so much his mom has trouble watching his matches, said Steve.
Now on his latest comeback after missing all of 2014 and 2015 due to multiple knee surgeries, Baker has a feeling this one will stick.
“This is a different comeback,” he said. “I definitely feel like I’m further along in this comeback than I was after five months in 2011 when I was coming back. I didn’t have four knee surgeries coming back last time (so) maybe I was fitter at five months (in) …
“I definitely feel night and day better now than I did a couple months ago. I feel like I’m going to keep getting better. The best is definitely yet to come for this second comeback. But at the same time I feel like I’m still pretty competitive and playing well right now. I’m getting matches and (I will) keep learning how to play the guys that are top 50 in the world. It’s hard enough to beat these guys when you haven’t had any setbacks…so you’re kind of having to relearn a little bit on how to compete because a lot of the matches come down to a few points here and there.”
As golfers, basketball players and other higher-ranked tennis players spurn the Games, Baker is embracing them.
“Just really excited,” Baker said when asked his reaction about making the team. “Tennis still isn’t a traditional Olympic sport, but you grow up watching the Olympics and it’s such a cool thing. It happens only once every four years and to see how passionate athletes are when they’re playing for their country, it just brings a different gear for most athletes. Just seeing that passion on TV. I’ve never been to an Olympics in person. Just to be able to go and experience the Olympic feeling and to be a part of it just makes it that much sweeter.”
For Baker, who attended and coached at Belmont University in Nashville, it was never a question he wouldn’t play the Olympics, despite mosquito-borne Zika virus concerns, security and housing and pollution problems. He spoke with his brother, Art, an infectious disease doctor.
“It was never enough of a concern to think about not going,” Baker said.
For Baker, the Games represent another chance to play. Another chance to get to where he wants to be in tennis. Another opportunity to recover some of the dream he’s had since he was a kid.
Baker’s dream wasn’t to someday play in the Olympics. Like most tennis players, it was — and is — to play well at his sport’s highest level: Wimbledon, the French Open, the U.S. Open, the Australian.
This year, after nearly three years off due to injury, Baker was healthy enough to play the main draw in three majors. He lost in the first round in all three. But he is patiently taking baby steps. That’s his best showing since 2012, when he reached Wimbledon’s fourth round, and the second round of both the French and U.S. Opens.
As a junior, Baker reached as high as world No. 2, making the 2003 French Open Junior final and beating people like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Marco Baghdatis. In 2005, he upset ninth-seed Gaston Gaudio for his first major win as a pro. All have gone on to become today’s top players.
Then injuries and surgeries piled up as if he was cursed — Tommy John surgery on his wrist, three hip operations, even a sports hernia. He did not play on the pro tour from 2006 to 2011.
But “I never lost the desire to come back,” he said.
Like a rock star playing at the corner bar, Baker played in a recreational tennis league, the same one as his dad. In 2008, he enrolled at Belmont University as a full-time student, putting in three years and helping coach the men’s team.
“I knew whether I was 35 or however old, I knew I always wanted to finish my degree,” said Baker, who graduated in 2015 with a business degree. “If you look at the glass really, really half full, that’s one positive that came out of all the injuries.”
“Staying in the game helps you stay sharp and keep the itch alive,” he said of coaching. “Staying around tennis…I think that was helpful.”
In late 2011, he felt good enough to attempt a return, at least to sport’s minor leagues. He had a year that was remarkable considering his long absence: In the spring of 2012, he won a satellite tournament, got a wild card into the French Open and reached the final of a French warm-up tournament on the main tour. He beat tour regular Xavier Malisse in the French first round.
Baker then won three qualifying matches to earn a slot at Wimbledon, where he reached the fourth round and later managed to make the U.S. Open second round, ending 2012 ranked No. 61 in the world.
He was back.
Then, cruelly, injury struck again. Playing in the Australian Open at the beginning of 2013, Baker suffered a badly torn meniscus during a match with longtime friend Querrey. Baker had to be wheeled from the court. He returned to action four months later, but continued knee problems plagued him for the next three years. By the end of 2013, his ranking had plunged to No. 360 and dropped even further after.
It was the closest he came to walking away from the sport for good.
Now, despite his early exits in the majors, his play in smaller tournaments tells him and others that things are looking up.
“I’m happy he’s back,” Querrey told the Washington Post last week at the Citi Open tournament, where Baker lost 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) to No. 13 seed and powerful server Ivo Karlovic in the second round.
“He’s one of those guys all the Americans are friends with, and I think the other guys are too. We’re all cheering for him to come back time and time again like he has. It’s just amazing. I’ve had a couple injuries myself and come back, and he’s had that times 10, so I know what it’s like in a small scale, but he really knows what it’s like. So every match he wins I’m excited for him.”
So for Baker, the Olympics are a highlight in a career without many of them. In the week or so since he was named to the team, his ranking has already improved to No. 437.
These days, he just wants to string together enough injury-free seasons to see what his new best can be. Rio will help.
“I’m really excited to go,” he said.
Columbia's Isadora Cerullo is American-born, but she will be playing rugby for Brazil at the Olympics.
She joins several other athletes taking advantage of the host country’s automatic qualification in some events, including rugby, field hockey, golf, rowing and wrestling.
Cerullo played flyhalf for Columbia. Her parents are Brazilian, but she has never lived in the country. According to her LinkedIn page, Cerullo has played rugby for Brazil since 2014. Brazil has a thin history with women’s rugby. After Brazil won the Games, the federation started a program to find players abroad to fill out the team, according to the Associated Press.
Zola Budd, Mary Decker unite for documentary
More than 30 years after Mary Decker infamously tripped over Zola Budd in the 3,000-meter race in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, the former rivals have gotten together for a documentary about the incident, called “The Fall: Decker vs. Budd,” set to be released in theaters July 29.
Budd, now Zola Pieterse, is a volunteer assistant coach for cross country and track and fieldat Coastal Carolina.
Budd, the child-faced white South African who ran barefoot as a child, and Decker, the American favorite and multiple world championship medalist, raced in a much-anticipated showdown.
The result was an incident that lived in infamy when Decker stumbled onto the infield and was left crying and enraged, later hinting that Budd deliberately tripped her. Budd, devastated by the fall, finished out of the medals.
Above: Brian Baker courtesy Belmont University Athletics