PARIS (AP) — Probably would have been hard to imagine back when Brian Baker reached the 2003 junior final at the French Open that it would take him nearly a decade to make it to the men's tournament.
The 27-year-old from Nashville, Tenn., finally completed that journey Monday and won his main-draw debut at Roland Garros, beating 2002 Wimbledon semifinalist Xavier Malisse of Belgium 6-3, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (5), the latest step in a hard-to-believe comeback.
"It's definitely something I didn't envision, I'd say, a couple months ago or a year ago," Baker said. "But the last couple weeks, my game has come around. Feeling a lot healthier and definitely playing some good tennis."
He was cheered on by his parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, and his girlfriend Monday.
Well worth the trip.
Baker was forced off the tour for 6½ years because of a series of operations that began in November 2005 and included work on his right elbow, both hips — the left one twice — and a sports hernia.
"Never really had that one moment where I thought about throwing in the towel. But you have to be realistic when you have that many surgeries, that maybe tennis isn't in the cards anymore, and that you've got to see what else is out there outside of tennis," Baker said. "But never had that one time where I was ready to say: 'I'm done.' Maybe close to that, but never all the way out."
Baker earned a French Open wild card from the U.S. Tennis Association by virtue of results at low-level clay-court events in the United States.
He hadn't played in the main draw of a tour-level tournament after a 2005 U.S. Open loss to Malisse — how's that for coincidence? — until last week in Nice, where he went through qualifying to get into the field, then went all the way to the final.
During his forced sabbatical from professional tennis, Baker took classes and coached tennis at Belmont University in Nashville.
He's been hearing from quite a bit of the students he coached via texts or Facebook messages.
"They think it's awesome," Baker said. "I guess they're finally feeling validated that when I used to beat them up in practice ... now they don't have to feel so bad about it; that I'm actually beating some other guys, too."