By Steve Tignor, Tennis.com
PARIS -- Brian Baker, 27 but looking a few years older and perhaps a little bit wiser than his age, headed back to the baseline after the coin toss with his baseball cap set low on his forehead. He walked on his toes, took short strides, and kept his narrow shoulders high and his upper body tilted back. He appeared to be what they call moseying. The Nashville native looked more like a country boy heading out his backdoor to do a little fishing than he did a man about to play his first match at Roland Garros. All he needed was a piece of straw in his mouth and a few lures, instead of a Babolat, in his hand to complete the down home illusion.
And that’s kind of how Baker plays tennis, with an easy, firm, no-nonsense manner, like a man who knows his business and who, rather than making a comeback after seven years and five surgeries, has been winning and losing Grand Slam matches for years now. When he makes a dumb error, Baker doesn’t lose his head. Instead, he’s the rare tennis player who scolds himself without raising his voice, and in complete sentences to boot. This afternoon, when he bungled a drop shot, Baker looked at his friends on the sidelines and said, conversationally, “I’ve hit some pretty bad drop shots today.” Later, he tried to take a return of serve early, got his feet tangled, and put the ball into the back fence. “That’s bad,” he said, using his indoor voice. “It’s embarrassing.”
Baker doesn’t mess around with his strokes, either; there’s nothing elaborate or dramatic about them. He has some of the quickest and most compact backswings around. Actually, when you watch him up close, you realize that his forehand swing isn’t as short as it might appear; he just gets it through the zone with dispatch. His backhand? If Baker were 10 years younger and a rookie, we’d be describing it as one of the most exciting new shots in the game. It’s short and sweet and clean, but it’s also, as Baker’s opponent, Xavier Malisse, found out today, vicious. When Baker swings it, the fisherman turns into a bully.
Baker moseyed and bullied his way past Malisse in straight sets today, on a highly energized side court at Roland Garros. It was, oddly, the first Grand Slam match that Baker had played since losing to Malisse in the second round of the 2005 U.S. Open (last week Baker played his first ATP event of any kind since that match; he reached the final in Nice). That was before the sports hernia and the left hip operation and the Tommy John surgery and the reconstructive right elbow surgery and the right hip cleaning and who knows what else that Baker probably can’t even remember having done to him.
For obvious reasons, Baker has been the story of the ATP for the last few weeks, as he came from injury oblivion to earn the USTA’s wild card into Roland Garros and turn himself into the oldest phenom in U.S. tennis history. Still, this wasn’t a Baker crowd; it was Malisse, of nearby Belgium, who got the bigger cheer when the two were announced. Baker obviously wasn’t fazed.
Later he admitted to be a little in awe of the moment, but that wasn’t the only thing he felt as he walked out. “I kinda had a little bit of confidence, too, going out there,” Baker said. “I wasn’t as nervous as maybe I was in the U.S. Opens in the past. Last week [in Nice] helped me a ton, just beating some of those good players. You’re gonna have more nerves in a Grand Slam match. It’s just part of the game.”
A man going about his business.
Baker set the tone early, one that would stay the same throughout. He did what so many baseliners don’t do these days, he rushed his opponent. He took the ball early and on the rise. He moved in on his returns. He went down the line and through the shortest part of the court. And he used his 120-m.p.h. serve when needed. Malisse was a step behind, even on clay.
Baker’s plan worked to the tune of 46 winners against 27 errors. And his rush-the-opponent style worked best when it mattered most. Baker won the second set tiebreaker 7-1, going away, with a forehand winner, two aces, and another forehand winner. And when the inevitable nerves came, at 4-2 in the third set, Baker stayed just calm enough not to let them overwhelm him. In the third-set breaker, he earned one mini-break with a backhand return winner, then went up 5-4 with a gutsy forehand volley that he took from about a foot inside the baseline. Finally, he got what even folk heroes sometimes need, a little help. From 5-5, Malisse took two swings and hit two balls into the net. Baker had his first win at Roland Garros.
How did he celebrate? He threw his hands in the air and brought them down again. Then he moseyed up to the net to shake hands.
How did he react later? In typical Nashville fashion, without a whole lot of fuss.
“The last couple weeks my game has come around,” Baker said afterward, “and I’m feeling a lot healthier and definitely playing some good tennis.” Healthy, playing good tennis: What else could a 27-year-old guy who was coaching college tennis last year ask for?
Where will the sport's version of a Disney feel-good flick end? Well, consider this: In November 1997, Andre Agassi was 27 years old and ranked No. 141; today Brian Baker is 27 years old and ranked No. 141. Can a career Grand Slam be far off?
For now, Baker may be starting to enjoy the star treatment. He plays France’s Gilles Simon next. Baker says, with a no-fuss grin, that he wouldn't mind if it's on a show court.