MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Cast as the Cinderella Man of tennis in 2012 after his stunning comeback from almost seven years off the professional circuit, American Brian Baker is beginning to get used to life among the world's best players.
Twelve months ago, Baker was ranked world number 456, still in the early throes of a comeback and playing on the Futures Tour, two rungs below the top flight.
On Monday, the 27-year-old edged out Alex Bogomolov Jr of Russia 7-6 6-3 6-7 3-6 6-2 to win his first ever match at the Australian Open.
Now ranked 59, Baker is getting accustomed to mixing it with the best and said the dream had become a reality.
"I think last year it probably helped me to have that mentality of sure. I'm still competitive, I want to win every match but you kind of think 'I'm really happy to be here'," Baker told reporters.
"I didn't have the expectations and then you kind of just ride, ride and ride that wave and you don't put the pressure on yourself.
"This year, I have to remind myself where I was a year ago, playing a $10,000 Futures, instead of the Australian Open, but I don't have that same 'I'm happy to be here, let's see what happens'. Now it's 'I've done it, let's try to get better'."
Having been the runner-up at the French Open juniors in 2003, Baker was working his way up the senior rankings in 2005 when he first felt an injury in his left hip, which required surgery.
That began a nightmare run of two left hip surgeries, a right hip operation, a sports hernia surgery and right elbow surgery which, with the exception of a couple of matches in 2007, kept him off the tour until 2011 when he decided to give it one last go.
"I guess 12 months ago I wasn't thinking it would be this fast but there's no reason why I shouldn't be in the top 50 going into May," said Baker, whose high point came at Wimbledon last year when he qualified and reached the last 16.
"I really don't have that many things to defend going into May and that's when I started doing all my damage so if I put a couple of decent results together I should be there."
Baker said he would be working with former grand slam runner-up Todd Martin to maintain his progress, but admitted his second year would be tougher than the first.
"People know who you are and coaches are smart out there so they are going to try to figure out ways that they think are the best ways to beat me," he said.
"At the end of last year, guys had better scouting reports and I wasn't catching anybody by surprise.
"But I think clay will be a big part of my season this year. I've played most on hard courts in my life but I think my game matches up well against these guys on clay."
(Editing by John O'Brien)