<
>

Brian Baker's dream ride goes on

PARIS -- A month ago, before the media maelstrom, Brian Baker was musing about his preparation for the French Open.

It was the day after he had won a Challenger event in Savannah, Ga., and secured the golden ticket, a USTA wild-card berth in the main draw at Roland Garros. It had been nearly six years -- and a dizzying series of surgeries -- since the 27-year-old Tennessean had played an ATP-level match and, frankly, he was kind of pumped.

"I just drove back from Georgia last night," Baker said, "so I'm trying to figure that out today and tomorrow. There's a chance I'll play qualies in the Nice [France] tournament the week before the French. It's not 100 percent, but it would be nice to get a clay warmup in."

In fact, Baker flew across the Atlantic and somehow won seven matches in eight days. And a terrific story became incandescent.

He beat Nikolay Davydenko in the semifinals to run his winning streak to 15. A loss to Nicolas Almagro in the final did nothing to temper the enthusiasm of the American sporting media. In the past several days, Baker has been featured in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated online, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and he made a visit to the ESPN set on the grounds here.

The storyline is so unlikely, so achingly, impossibly poignant that the Disney movie folks would probably reject it as unrealistic. And these are the folks who brought you "The Mighty Ducks," "Air Bud" and Johnny Depp as mad Jack Sparrow -- and you can even throw in "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid."

The Curious Case of Brian Baker.

Like Brad Pitt in the movie adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, Baker's tennis career is aging backward. At 27, he appears to be at the beginning of his career.

All things considered, this is not only one of the greatest sports comebacks ever. No. This is one of the greatest comebacks ever. Period.

As Baker warmed up for his first-round match against Xavier Malisse, was it too much to ask for just one more win, another chapter to the story? To hope for the second Grand Slam singles match victory of his career, some seven years after the first -- a straight-sets stunner over former Grand Slam champion Gaston Gaudio?

Well, no, actually.

Baker defeated Malisse 6-3, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (5) on Monday and will face dangerous No. 11 seed Gilles Simon in the second round. Twenty-year-old American Ryan Harrison won the first set against Simon, a flying Frenchman, on the biggest court at Roland Garros. Eventually, inertia set in as Simon slowly rallied and won, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-1.

After dropping the first point of a second-set tiebreaker, Baker won the last seven to take control of his match. So, to review: After an absence of almost six years, Baker has won five of six ATP matches in the past seven days.

The remarkable thing? That Baker has come out of these recent tournaments in such good shape, physically speaking. When you study his medical history, it's hard to believe he hasn't broken down after playing seven matches in eight days and eight matches in nine days in his two previous events.

Baker has been asked to repeat his injury list so often lately, his smooth and measured response sounds like a legal disclaimer. The Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, he noted, involved the ulnar collateral ligament and was one of three procedures he endured in 2008 alone.

"No more since," he added. "It's been good."

There is a matter-of-factness to him, considering the bad luck he has endured, that is unnerving. As a junior, he was in extremely good company before the injuries hit. In the 2003 junior tournament here, he beat Marcos Baghdatis and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on his way to the final, where he lost to Stanislas Wawrinka. All three were future top-10 players.

Now, nine years later, he's going to find out quickly if he can still hang with this crowd.

"I think that's why it makes it so much sweeter just to have that success now, because of how much I went through in the past, how much pain and just having tennis taken away from you not from your own doing," he said Saturday. "It's not like I wanted to quit tennis. So it's definitely, like I said, that much, I guess, sweeter that I'm able to have success now."

>Good start for Isner

Unlike Andy Roddick, 6-foot-9 John Isner looks reasonably comfortable on clay. The No. 10-seeded American defeated Brazilian qualifier Rogerio Dutra Silva 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.

Does Isner believe he's at the stage where he could reach a Grand Slam final?

"I believe it's reachable, yes," he said. "I guess I have proven that I am capable of, you know, beating the top guys in the world, beating Federer and beating Djokovic have been huge for my confidence. For me at these big events, it's all about getting through the early rounds. Once I do that, I start to get more comfortable.

"So the ultimate goal is to be in a Slam final. I do believe I can do it. I'm going to go out there and try and do it."

Last year, Isner pushed Rafael Nadal to five sets in opening round, the first time Nadal was extended to five sets at Roland Garros. Isner is now 10-4 on clay for the season, including 4-0 in Davis Cup.

Jesse Levine, a former University of Florida Gator, defeated Benjamin Becker 7-5, 6-2, 6-4. That raised his career record in Grand Slam matches to 6-8.

World No. 10 Mardy Fish passed on this French Open because of a medical condition heretofore unexplained, until now. USA Today disclosed Monday that Fish had some serious heart issues and underwent a procedure last week.

"It felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest," Fish said. "It has been so scary."

Fish, who said he has been suffering from the condition since February, said he hoped to be back in time to play Wimbledon.