Brian Baker recent tennis revival, which includes a recent run to the second week of play at Wimbledon, raises the question — for the first time in years — of who is the greatest tennis player in Nashville history.
There are several choices.
If ITP rankings and performance on both the national and international stage matter most, though, the edge suddenly goes to Baker. Never had a Nashville player reached the fourth round of Wimbledon before Baker did so. Not many have even played at the prestigious Grand Slam event.
Peter van Lingen and Bill Tym did, although neither lived in Nashville at the time of their respective Wimbledon appearances.
Van Lingen, 69, remains a teaching pro at Westside Club. He is a native of Pretoria, South Africa and moved here in 1975. He played at Wimbledon in 1966 and reached the third round. He also played the U.S. Open in 1966 and 1967 and got as far as the third round.
“Brian has been extraordinary ever since he was a junior,” van Lingen, who started his Nashville teaching career at Nashboro Village, said. “He was ranked No. 1 in the nation at one point and in the top four juniors in the world. That was before he went through a period where his body couldn’t hold up.
“He has an all-court game and is successful on any surface. He can grind out a point and do the work from the baseline on clay courts and he’s also effective on grass. The way he’s been playing lately, I think he has the chance to become at least a top 50 player. He is playing guys ranked higher than he is and beating them.”
Van Lingen was ranked No. 1 nationally in USTA 40-over, then 45-over singles divisions at one point, said.
“I think expectations are he will continue to rise if his body holds up,” van Lingen, who with son Van, won seven national father-son championships and one international tournament in Switzerland, said. “In looking at a group of juniors, Brian was the one who stood out. Brian had the work ethic.”
Van Lingen, personally, lays no claim to the title of Nashville’s best.
“I think it has to be Brian,” he said. “In my 40 years here, he’s the best player I’ve seen, all the way from juniors to his current success.”
Tym also is impressed with Baker’s rediscovered success.
Tym, 72, played Wimbledon singles and the U.S. Open twice in the mid 1960s after an All-American collegiate career at Florida.
“It is amazing and exciting to me how well Brian is doing,” Tym said. “First, he was determined to overcome his setbacks, then secondly, he pushed himself to play at a high, world-class level.
“I could tell when he was competing in the 11-12 age brackets that he was going to be outstanding. He won a lot of junior tournaments, including the Orange Bowl, and got to the finals of the French Open juniors (in 2003). Perhaps most impressive is that he has an all-court game, he is strong on any surface. I was excited that he got to the finals of Nice (France), a tournament I won in the 1960s.”
Following his playing career, Tym coached Vanderbilt in the 1980s, then became pro at Richland Country Club. He named Joe Davis, an All-American at Vanderbilt, and the Brown brothers Jimmy and Ricky, who moved here from Memphis in 1980, and, of course, Baker as Nashville’s all-time best tennis players.
Davis reached the semifinals of the NCAA tournament in 1941 before he lost to top seed Joe Hunt of Navy. Jimmy and Ricky Brown won several national junior tournaments but didn’t experience the same success as adults.
“Brian has also had major success at the junior level,” Tym, who spent two years in Jakarta, Indonesia, working with that country’s Fed Cup team, Davis Cup team and juniors, said.
Current University School of Nashville coach Russell Buchi won six straight Municipal men’s titles in the early 1990s. It wasn’t unusual for him to sweep singles, doubles and mixed doubles, with his sister Sharon, in a single year.
Buchi’s matches with van Lingen in the Municipal and City tournament finals in the early 1980s were legendary. Buchi once got into the 300s in world rankings, but never cracked the top 100.
Names like Johnny Hyden and Kermit Stengel also pop up into Nashville tennis lore of the 1950s and 1960s.
Gary Dunn of the 1970s was one of Nashville’s great juniors at Lipscomb (where he won three straight state singles titles) and collegiate players before shoulder injuries shortened a promising career. Bill Cherry won three state crowns at Montgomery Bell Academy.
Looking at his rise in international stature, the vote here goes to Baker as the city’s best ever. And given what he’s accomplished lately, it looks like he has a lot of great tennis left in him.