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Olympian advances in Kentucky Bank Tennis Championship

Brian Baker delivered a serve as he played Daniel Evans in singles during the Kentucky Bank Tennis Championships on Tuesday July 26, 2016 in Lexington.
Brian Baker delivered a serve as he played Daniel Evans in singles during the Kentucky Bank Tennis Championships on Tuesday July 26, 2016 in Lexington. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

When tough situations come up, a simple course of action is to just keep fighting and hoping everything falls into place. Sometimes that turns out the best and it shows with U.S. Olympic Tennis squad member Brian Baker.

Baker, who is in Lexington this week for the Kentucky Bank Tennis Championship, found himself in that situation in his tiebreak first-round win over Daniel Evans. But he is no stranger to having his back against the wall after making a comeback to the sport this year after not playing since the 2013 U.S. Open.

“It’s just knowing that even if you don’t feel the ball great and you’re not ball striking like I could at times, you gotta just play with what you’re given that day,” Baker said. “You just have to fight and play the best you can with what you’re given that day.”

Tuesday’s match started out in a back-and-forth manner, with both players struggling to get into any rhythm. Baker did take the first set 7-5 but, between the heat and court conditions, struggled to keep that pace and lost the second set 6-4. He went down 2-0 in the third set before weather forced a delay.

“I was probably pretty fortunate with the rain in the third. He had a little bit of momentum and I was already down a break, 0-2,” Baker said. “Seemed like things were going his way more than they were mine. So it kind of helped me regroup.”

After the delay, Baker regained some footing, eventually tying the set at 4-4, but Evans regained the lead up until the tiebreak.

The win over No. 80 Evans is one thing, but the continued progress Baker makes in his comeback is even more impressive.

Since turning pro in 2003, he has missed nearly eight years and had 11 surgeries, including one on his knees that eventually led to him leaving the ATP tour in 2013.

“There were times last year when I didn’t know whether I was going to be able to do it and I got pretty down,” Baker said. “But I’m lucky that I’ve been able to make this run.”

Starting at this year’s Australian Open, Baker’s goal has been to get back to being comfortable on the courts. So far he has been able to use his protected ranking — something given to injured players that averages their ranking across the first three months of their injury — to enter tournaments and work his way back.

Baker also, thanks to some timely withdraws, found himself with an opportunity to represent his country at the Olympics, something he easily saw himself doing before injuries plagued his career.

“I knew early on I had a good chance, but when I actually got the official word that I made it it was a pretty cool feeling,” Baker said. “It probably hasn’t sunk in as it will when I get down to Houston, where we meet as a team to go to Rio and down in Rio. I’m really excited. I’m excited to represent the USA and give it all I have.”

Because of the time away from tennis and his ranking going in, Baker is largely seen as a dark-horse candidate in this year’s Olympics. But as he showed with his win over Evans, he is capable of playing up to just any opponent he will face in Rio and has the mindset that could carry him far.

“That’s fine with me. People can underestimate me,” Baker said. “I would rather come in under the radar and be the guy that’s hunting other people down. Instead of coming in and just being hunted.”

Not thinking too far ahead of himself, though, Baker’s focus is still set here in Lexington. The victories have been scarce on his comeback tour, but Baker knows just getting out and playing will be the only thing that helps him get back to the level he once was.

He will have a chance to keep getting more prep for Rio if he can continue his run through the Kentucky Bank Tennis Championship, and the victories can’t hurt in validating all the work he has put in so far.

“I’ve played this game since I was a little kid. Sometimes it beats you up, but other times it’s super rewarding. That’s why you play the game, for the rewarding times, and Rio is one of those.”

Anthony Crawford: 859-231-1627, @a_craw_


Kentucky Bank Tennis Championships

When: Play begins at 9 a.m.

Where: UK’s Hilary J. Boone Tennis Complex

Tickets: One day, $10. All week, $50.