AP Tennis Writer
A year ago, Brian Baker was the former French Open junior finalist who made it into the main tournament at Roland Garros nearly a decade later thanks to a wild card from the U.S. Tennis Association.
Now it's Alex Kuznetsov's turn.
He is following in Baker's path somewhat on the way to Paris: Kuznetsov was the runner-up in the 2004 French Open boys' tournament -- 12 months after Baker -- and finally will get to play in the clay-court Grand Slam tournament's main draw, earning a berth with strong results in three USTA Pro Circuit events.
"To think -- I guess it's been almost 10 years -- that this will be my first French Open main draw, I would have said I'd liked to have been in a couple before now, to be honest with you," the 26-year-old Kuznetsov said Monday. "It means a lot. It means all the hard work that I've put in is paying off. I continue to keep working hard. I know this is kind of the first step of many, I hope."
Kuznetsov, who is from Richboro, Pa., tried to qualify for the French Open four times without making it. He did qualify for the Australian Open in January, before losing to 11-time major champion Rafael Nadal in the first round.
Kuznetsov knows Baker, and they've trained together in Tampa, Fla. Kuznetsov followed closely the tale of an American who was ranked 458th at the start of 2012 after more than five years off the tour because of injuries. Baker reached the final of a clay-court event in Nice, France, right before heading to the French Open thanks to a USTA wild card. At Roland Garros, he beat 2002 Wimbledon semifinalist Xavier Malisse in the first round, then pushed 11th-seeded Gilles Simon to five sets before losing in the second round. Baker later reached the fourth round at Wimbledon as a qualifier.
"Brian offered a lot of encouragement to me just to see kind of what he's been through throughout his whole career," Kuznetsov said. "To see him come back the way he did, get to the final of Nice last year, go to the French Open and win a round, then play Simon tight in five sets, that gave me a lot of inspiration."
Like Baker in 2012, Kuznetsov is heading to play on red clay in Nice before going to Paris, where the tournament begins May 26.
Until the USTA's chance for a wild card came along, though, Kuznetsov was not at his best.
He lost six consecutive singles matches heading into qualifying for a low-tier Challenger event at Sarasota, Fla.
"I wasn't thinking about the wild card at all. ... I got the email from the USTA saying they were going to be doing this playoff for it with these three tournaments," Kuznetsov said. "I was looking to go to Sarasota, get some confidence back. With every match, I gained a little bit more."
Not only did he qualify for that tournament, he won the title, stringing together seven victories in a row.
"I'm playing some of the best tennis of my life. I feel strong. I feel fit," Kuznetsov said. "I'm really looking forward to the future. I feel like I'm on the right path right now. I feel I'm really focused on what I need to do."
Shelby Rogers struggled early this season, too. She lost six consecutive singles matches before starting in the right direction during the three tournaments used in the USTA's wild-card standings to earn her first trip into the main draw at the French Open.
"I hadn't won a round since November of last year or something. I was just trying to get some confidence back, get some matches, get some clay court tennis in," Rogers said.
But the 20-year-old from Charleston, S.C., wound up winning the title at Charlottesville, Va.
Now she gets to make plans for a visit to Paris.
"I think I have to go to the Eiffel Tower, right?" Rogers said. "A couple other sites, I guess. Maybe see the city a little bit. Hopefully stay on the red clay as long as I can."
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