By Steve Galluzzo, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
LOS ANGELES -- Brian Baker is not the kind of guy to let one loss discourage him. Not after all he has been through.
The 27-year-old from Nashville, Tenn., has been the talk of professional tennis since returning to the sport last summer after a 44-month absence, and no player has been pulling harder for Baker than his friend and former doubles partner Rajeev Ram. Except for Monday night.
Baker received a wild card and the No. 8 seed in the 28-player singles draw of this week's Farmers Classic, the fourth of 10 hard-court events in the Emirates Airline US Open Series, and ironically his first-round opponent was none other than Ram, who prevailed 7-6 (3), 7-5 in Baker's debut match at UCLA's historic Straus Stadium.
"We go back a long way, and whenever you re-play someone who knows your own game so well, you have a tendency to out-think yourself," said the 117th-ranked Ram, who rallied from a 4-1 deficit in the first set, then hit a running forehand passing shot to level the second set at 2-2 before breaking Baker's serve in the 12th game to avoid a second tiebreaker. "I'm just glad to see Brian back playing regularly. He's fought through a lot of adversity, and he's made the best of his situation."
It was the fifth defeat in 13 ATP World Tour matches this year for the 79th-ranked Baker, who was trying to rebound from a three-set loss to Russian Igor Kunitsyn in the first round of last week's BB&T Atlanta Open. Baker entered that event with a career-best ranking of 76--not too shabby for a player who was unranked 13 months ago and was unsure whether he would be healthy enough to compete at a world-class level again after undergoing five--yes, five--surgeries.
"They were close sets, and I was up a [service] break in each one. I just played some bad points at critical moments, and at this level, you have to play your best to win," Baker said. "I haven't had two good weeks of practice, but I'm confident I'll turn it around. I have a [physical therapist] here with me, and I know my body pretty well by now."
Once among the finest young players in the country, Baker was the 2002 Orange Bowl champion, reached the 2003 French Open junior final and rose to No. 2 in the world junior rankings. Despite numerous Division I scholarship offers, he elected to go pro and turned heads with an upset of ninth-seeded Gaston Gaudio of Argentina in the first round of the 2005 US Open.
Then injuries began to take their toll on Baker's psyche and his game. He was sidetracked by three hip surgeries (two to his left hip, one to his right), a sports hernia surgery in 2006 and an elbow surgery in 2008. He enrolled at Belmont University to pursue a business degree, and he even served as assistant coach of the tennis team before returning to the court last July to win a $10,000 Futures event in Pittsburgh.
Then he moved to the Challenger tour and has been steadily climbing the computer rankings ever since.
Baker moved up 79 places (going from No. 293 to No. 214) after winning eight straight matches to capture the Savannah Challenger title in April. More importantly, he was awarded the USTA's wild card into the French Open, where he defeated Belgium's Xavier Malisse in straight sets in the first round before losing to 12th-ranked Gilles Simon of France in four sets. Malisse is the No. 5 seed this week in Los Angeles.
Baker made the round of 16 as a qualifier at Wimbledon, and in the third round, he posted a four-set triumph over Frenchman Benoit Paire, who is the top seed in Los Angeles and has a first-round bye. The Farmers Classic field also includes two-time champion Sam Querrey (who is seeded second), fan favorite James Blake and Steve Johnson, the reigning NCAA singles champion from nearby USC.
Despite the recent media attention, Baker insists he hasn't changed.
"Sure, I get to play better events at better venues and stay in nicer hotels, but I'm pretty much the same," he said. "I don't ever get too up or too down. I've learned to take things in stride."
Ram and Baker have been playing each other since they were 11- and 12-year-olds in the juniors, and the two teamed up to reach the Wimbledon boys' doubles final in 2002. Since then, their careers have taken distinctly different paths, yet through it all they have stayed in touch. They even spent four days practicing together at Ram's house in December.
"I'm not surprised that Brian's doing what he's doing--he has a great return of serve, and his game's always been there," said Ram, who was born in Denver but now resides in Indianapolis. "It's just a matter of his body holding up. Knock on wood, but I've never had a surgery, so it was hard to know what to say to him at times."
Baker won a $15,000 Futures event in Costa Mesa in March and was hoping his return to Southern California would produce another Hollywood ending. It didn't, but watching 19-year-old wild card Jack Sock play on the stadium court prior to his own match reminded Baker of his younger days.
"He's one of the top up-and-coming Americans, just like I was, and there's a learning curve," Baker said. "Yeah, I haven't had five years on tour playing week in and week out, so a lot of this is still new for me, too, but you realize you're gonna take some lumps."
Ram, 28, is paired with Michael Russell in doubles this week, but he hopes to renew his partnership with Baker at the US Open in late August. "It isn't set in stone, but we talked about it a couple weeks ago. Brian's my buddy, and I'd rather have that big return of his on my side of the net."
Next up for Ram is a second-round meeting Wednesday against Paul Capdeville of Chile, who defeated Igor Kunitsyn of Russia 6-4, 7-6 (5) earlier on Monday. The next match for Baker will be at next week's Emirates Airline US Open Series event in Washington, D.C.
"I don't have many points to defend, so I don't have a rankings goal. It's just a blessing to be healthy," he said. "I'm glad I have direct acceptance to the US Open instead of having to qualify. I haven't had time to practice much on this surface since I got back from Europe, so hopefully with more work I'll adjust to the higher bounces and have some good results."