INTERVIEW Scot aims to build on qualification by winning first match at a grand slam, writes Simon Cambers
Jamie Baker has been through enough pain and misfortune to last a lifetime, but as the 26-year-old Glaswegian prepares to play his first-round match at the Australian Open tomorrow, there is a real feeling of optimism that he may just have turned the corner.
And not through luck or hand-outs, but through hard work, perseverance and an attitude that belongs right at the top of the game.
Having won through three matches in qualifying, including a victory over former world No.38 Donald Young, Baker will take on Czech Lukas Rosol, the man who beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon last summer.
Baker will have plenty of support in the stands and in the locker room, especially from his old friend Andy Murray, whose smile was wider than anyone's when he heard of the result against Young.
"I'll take that for sure," Baker said of his draw. "It's better than playing [Andy] Roddick on court one at Wimbledon [as he did last summer]. As much as I enjoyed it, all these guys have holes in their game."
Baker, who had a life-threatening blood illness in 2008 that left him suffering from what he is convinced, looking back, was depression.
He has never allowed himself to give up, determined that he has the ability to get into the top 100, from where he believes he could make a decent living.
Languishing in the 200s, Baker does not resent his friend's success, while Murray has long admired Baker's work ethic and, for the second December in a row, he invited him to train with him in Miami. Baker spent three and a half weeks there this time with the US Open champion.
"Having the access to an awareness of standards – he is one of the best three in the world – and to see what he does on a daily basis has been great," Baker said. "Just hitting balls with him is so eye-opening. At times I will come off court and say I just cannot understand how he has got that good. I cannot relate to what he is doing with the ball compared to how hard I am trying to do similar things. If I have anything on my mind or I want to ask him anything about my game, how to improve, he's there and it's on tap."
In such an individual sport, having people around who you know can make all the difference.
"We've known each other since I was about six years old and in terms of a friendship he's perhaps the only person who I have known for that long," Baker said. "No matter what he does there are no secrets between us. I know everything about him and vice versa. It's nice in a crazy tennis world to have someone like that."
The vast gap between the top players and the rest, and then between the top 100 and those scrambling to make a living in the men's game, has never been greater.
Twenty-two players made more than $1m in prize money last year, yet someone such as Baker, who arrived in Melbourne ranked 246, had made only a fraction of that in his entire career.
The difficulty in making a living is a big talking point in the game, and Australian Open officials have tried to help by offering every player in singles, doubles and qualifying, A$1000 (about £653) to help with travel and accommodation.
It is a nice move and one for which Baker is grateful, although he questioned the need to give the money to all players.
"It's good, but I couldn't believe they gave it to everyone," he said. "They gave Andy [Murray] a cheque for a thousand dollars. What's he going to do with that? Have lunch at Nobu? But it's the first time a slam has done that, so they are taking notice and next year they have said they'll cover everyone's travel expenses. The thousand this year was a helping hand. If you are looking at trying to help more players make a living out of the game and get a salary their dedication deserves, then maybe those who are earning a certain amount of prize money don't get it and it's all put into the pot so everyone else gets a bit more. But I'm extremely grateful to have it."
Reaching the main draw guarantees him A$27,600 (around £18,000) and at least 35 ranking points, which will push him close to the top 200. Victory over Rosol will be worth A$45,500 (£29,700) and 70 points, putting him around No.185.
From there, he could plan his schedule differently, enabling him to try to qualify for the bigger events, which offer greater rewards than if he played lower-level events instead.
"I have never won a match at a slam so ranking-wise it would make a massive difference, huge points, huge money and will set me up for the tougher schedule I aim to play this year," Baker said. "I am here, no-one has given it to me. I lack confidence sometimes but I feel better if I qualified in my own right. I don't owe anyone a good performance, I feel like I am good enough to be here."
But don't expect success to go to his head or for him to splash out on something expensive as a reward.
"I am saving for a house so I don't want to spend my money on a slightly nicer hotel," he said. "I flew economy but got an upgrade into premium on the second leg, which was nice."