Comeback Kid: Brian Baker Rocks Tennis World

Brian Baker, 27, is a tennis player from Nashville, Tenn., who's had a Disney-like comeback season after being out of the sport for seven years with injuries. Baker started the season as 458th in the world. He's now 79th after making it to Wimbledon's fourth round. Now, Baker will be playing in his first U.S. Open since 2005.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Amazing comebacks happen all the time in sports, but returning to the elite levels of the game after six years away is pretty much unheard of, until this summer. A 27-year-old from Nashville, Tennessee is the talk of tennis after turning heads at the French Open in Wimbledon. Now, fans are wondering if he can do it again at the U.S. Open, which begins on Monday. Here's NPR's Ben Bergman.

BEN BERGMAN, BYLINE: As a teenager, Brian Baker was considered to be the future of American tennis.

JON WERTHEIM: I remember watching him play the junior final at the French Open.

BERGMAN: Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim was there in 2003.

WERTHEIM: The stands are dotted with agents, and, you know, here's this kid who's nice-looking, big-game Southerner. This was right after Andy Roddick, and everybody's sort of looking who's going to be the next tennis star. And this was it.

BERGMAN: After turning pro, Baker upset the eighth best player in the world at the 2005 U.S. Open. Then he dropped off the tennis map, beset by one injury after another. He had surgery on his left hip, his right hip, and then again on his left hip. There was sports hernia surgery. Then, just as he started to plot a comeback in 2008, it was back to operating table, this time to repair his elbow with Tommy John surgery.

BRIAN BAKER: I never gave up hope that I couldn't come back, but I think at some point when you have five surgeries, you have to be realistic as well and know that maybe it's not in the cards. And what am I going to do with my life after tennis?

BERGMAN: Baker pursued a finance degree at Belmont University and coached the school's tennis team. The pro tennis world quickly forgot about him. It probably didn't help that, unlike Andy Roddick, he's quiet and reserved, big on Southern manners. But Baker didn't forget about pro tennis.

BAKER: Confidence is a funny thing. I always knew that I hit the ball well, but the body would always let me down.

BERGMAN: Baker decided to make one last go of it last summer, entering tiny tournaments that would be the equivalent of Single-A baseball. Far out of the spotlight, he started winning and climbing in the rankings, in the 700s last summer to the 400s to start this year, then 141 - good enough to get a wild card into the French Open to face the overwhelming favorite, Xavier Malisse.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENNIS BALL BEING HIT)

(APPLAUSE)

BERGMAN: Baker won in straight sets.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Brian Baker, riding a terrific story here in Paris, a lot of people jumping on that bandwagon.

BERGMAN: The wagon rode right on to Wimbledon, where Baker had to win three qualifying matches just to make it to the first round. He wasn't about to squander his opportunity on the biggest stage in tennis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Game, set and match. Baker, the comeback kid from Nashville, Tennessee is into his second week at Wimbledon on his debut.

BERGMAN: Comeback kid, Cinderella Man, take your pick. Reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon showed even the most hardened of skeptics that Baker was back. Once again, Jon Wertheim.

WERTHEIM: As the story has progressed, he's made a lot of believers. People, in a very short time, have gone from, oh, this is sort of a cute story, I wish him well, to wait a second. This is unbelievable.

BERGMAN: And no one finds the story more unbelievable than Baker himself, who has never been one to jump up and down.

BAKER: I was super-excited, but I still haven't quite, I guess - it's still been a whirlwind, where I haven't sat down and been like, wow, you know, I've really done some cool things this past year. And I'm sure in the offseason, I'll be able to look at it more and just be amazed that I've been able to come so far in one year's time.

BERGMAN: But first, back to the U.S. Open after seven years away. Baker faces the Czech Republic's Jan Hajek in the first round. For a change, the soft-spoken Tennessean is favored to win.

Ben Bergman, NPR News.

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