PARIS (AP) - A year ago at this time, back home in Nashville, stuck wondering whether he'd ever make it back to the professional tour after a series of operations, Brian Baker did a favor for his father and uncle by taking the court for their entry in something called the Middle Tennessee Tennis League.
You get the idea: Some middle-aged guys at a club on a weekday evening after work, playing mainly for bragging rights. Baker was a ringer on that scene, a guy who'd been good enough as a teen to reach the French Open junior final in 2003, then got a taste of main-draw Grand Slam action before injury after injury derailed a promising career.
Fast-forward to Wednesday afternoon, 14,911-seat Court Philippe Chatrier, the main stadium at Roland Garros, and a second-round match featuring Gilles Simon, the man seeded 11th at the French Open. Out there, too, and giving it his all against Simon was Baker, who basically came from nowhere to live out a sort of tennis fantasy camp, except this was real.
Playing in his first major tournament in 6½ years, Baker fought all the way back from a two-set deficit to force a fifth before losing to Simon 6-4, 6-1, 6-7 (4), 1-6, 6-0.
"Hopefully there will be more to come, but this was definitely the biggest thing that I've done since coming back, and probably the last couple weeks has been the biggest things I've accomplished in my career so far," said Baker, who lifted his ranking from 216th to 141st last week by qualifying for a clay-court tournament in Nice, then making it all the way to his first career ATP final.
He already had earned a wild card from the U.S. Tennis Association for the French Open with his results at low-level clay tournaments in the United States.
"It's definitely going to be something that I'll be able to look back and say that I played on center court at the French Open and went five sets," Baker said, "even though hopefully I'll forget about what happened in the fifth."
Oh, but what memories he'll have, particularly from the third and fourth sets against 2009 Australian Open quarterfinalist Simon - not to mention the past few whirlwind weeks.
Baker raced to the net against Simon and won the point on 23 of 38 trips forward. He used superb touch on drop shots to win 14 points, including the last of the fourth set. At that, his group of supporters in the player guest box behind a baseline rose to give Baker a standing ovation, and he headed to the changeover knowing that he was tied with one of the top players in the world after nearly 2½ hours.
"I'm not going to go out there and say I was fresh as a daisy in the fifth set. I wasn't. But that wasn't the sole reason why I lost 6-0 in the fifth," Baker said. "I think maybe I got a little more nervous knowing that I was one set away from winning."
Baker did get to 15-30 in the first game of the last set, but missed a return, then missed two backhands in a row. Simon broke to go ahead 2-0 on a 27-stroke point that included a lengthy exchange of baseline backhands, until Baker sailed a forehand long. Simon screamed, "Allez!"
And that was pretty much that.
"He's able to play some amazing shots, really amazing," Simon said. "He plays the ball really early after the (bounce), and he's really (relaxed) on the court."
It's been like a reunion for Baker this week, seeing all sorts of players who knew him when he was a junior and wondered whatever happened to him.
No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic said "it's great to see him back" and recalled that Baker, who is 2 years older, "was one of the best, if not the best junior in the world" back in the day.
But a couple of months after playing in the 2005 U.S. Open, Baker needed left hip surgery. That began a stretch of about 5½ years in which he played in two low-tier tournaments - and had five operations. The list includes a second left hip procedure, another on his right hip, a sports hernia repair, and reconstructive "Tommy John" right elbow surgery.
That last one came in 2008 and required about three years for full recovery. He never quite reached the point of contemplating quitting. But it wasn't easy.
"I tried to stay positive during those times, even though I was realistic, knowing that maybe I would never play again. But you have to stay positive, and you can only worry about the things you can control," Baker said. "I'm fortunate that finally, after five or six years, or however long it was, I started feeling a little bit better, and that gave me the motivation to at least give it another try. And now I'm really thankful that I have."
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