If there was an award for the unluckiest player in tennis, then Jamie Baker would surely be in contention.
This past week, the 25-year-old-from Glasgow should have been in Melbourne attempting to qualify for the Australian Open. Instead, he is at the National Tennis Centre in London recovering from yet another injury in what has been a career beset by setbacks.
After a narrow loss in his first match of the season in qualifying for the ATP event in Chennai on New Year’s Eve, the Scottish No.2 was forced to fly back home after suffering a recurrence of the abdominal muscle strain he suffered from at various points last year.
“To be honest, I feel a bit sick about having to miss the Australian Open again,” he said. “The last time I played it was when I qualified [in 2008], and the whole idea of continuing to play for the last six months of last year was for the very goal of getting back into the grand slams, so it is hard to even put into perspective the disappointment.”
Although there is never a good time to be hit by injury, Baker is unfortunate in that his setbacks have come along at the cruellest of times.
After reaching a career high ranking of 211 and achieving a number of promising results at the start of 2008, Baker contracted the rare blood disorder, Immune Thrombocytopenic Purpura (ITP), and spent three days in intensive care. But he fought back and was heading back towards the top 250 in March 2010 before he tore ligaments in his ankle ahead of a Davis Cup tie in Lithuania.
An impressive run of form in the second half of last year, though, has seen him reach No.238, which is his highest ranking since contracting ITP. But this latest setback, which is likely to rule him out of next month’s Davis Cup tie against the Slovak Republic at Braehead, will further test his resolve.
“It is pretty horrible,” he said. “The first time with the illness, I really felt I was on my way to making a decent career and equally this time, I am not quite ranked as high but I feel like my form is good, I have had a few good wins and with the amount of work and what I have been through to get back to that point, I feel like I have put myself in touching distance again of having another opportunity to do it.
“Opportunities in sport do not come around that often, but you hope that you actually get the opportunity to take advantage of those opportunities and I feel like I haven’t even had the chance to blow it; that is the frustrating part. Listen, I am not alone as there are so many players in different sports that get injuries. It is not a big conspiracy from the world on me, even though it does feel like that sometimes.
“I am well aware of these setbacks now and it is obviously not the same as having a setback when you are 19 or 20 years old. I am 25 and every one of these tournaments that go by, you really feel like you have missed it.”
Before Chennai, Baker had never felt in better shape. After practicing with Andy Murray on several occasions last year, the world No.4 invited Baker to Miami last month to join him for one of his infamous off-season physical training blocks. “It was full-on but it was fantastic,” said Baker. “It would have been an absolute running start this year for me if I was uninterrupted.
“Andy is now in a position where he is physically an absolute giant. He is very intimidating to look at, he is very strong, he is as fit as anyone and is right up there with the very best athletes.
“The amazing thing for me is the quality of his play; it is very different to anything really. Just actually sparring with him, the amount of learning that goes in to stay in a rally, to hit the right shot at the right time against him because if you don’t, you’re dead.”
Whilst in Miami, Baker met Murray’s new coach, Ivan Lendl, and the hook-up between the two is one which Baker feels could give his compatriot the extra edge he is looking for. “For Andy, it’s all about getting over that last hurdle which is literally one match,” he said. “It’s that final and the edge, the one or two percent which is needed.
“Andy is searching for the answer for that and has gone for the experienced guy who has been in the position where he lost his first four grand slam finals and then came back to win eight after that, so I think in terms of what he has been through, Andy has looked at that carefully and I think he can take a lot from it.”
While Murray attempts to win that elusive first grand slam title in Melbourne over the next fortnight, Baker will continue his recovery process. Although he is unsure of his return date, he hopes it will be within the next six weeks and is still hopeful of attaining his goals, which include a potential appearance at the 2012 Olympics in London.
“I have never had my ranking within the top 200 so that is definitely within my sights,” said Baker. “It’s a big year as it is an Olympic year and it is very likely that the second highest ranked British player will get a spot in the draw, so that would be a big thing to achieve. There is one guy [James Ward] ahead of me for that but if I put a good run together between now and then, you never know.
“I had some good wins at the end of last year which have given me confidence and I have had some great exposure to the very best in the world, so if I can get back on court as quickly as possible, hopefully some of these memories and feelings will still be there and it hopefully won’t take me too long to improve again.”
With the majority of Baker’s ranking points to be defended in the second half of this year, a place for the Scot in the Olympics is achievable. And who could argue that, after all he has been through, he does not deserve it?
**This is an extended version of the piece which appeared in the Herald on Saturday 14 January 2012**