Thursday, January 26, 2006

Baghdatis' Magical Comeback Puts Him In Final

The magical run for 20-year-old Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis continued Thursday night in Melbourne on Australia Day. In just his sixth career grand slam, the 54th ranked player in the world surprised another top 10 player to reach his first slam final. After taking out second seeded Andy Roddick in the Round of 16 and seventh seeded Ivan Ljubicic in the quarters, the flambuoyant Baghdatis made it a hat trick by coming back to defeat fourth seeded Argentine David Nalbandian in five sets 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 at Rod Laver Arena. The semifinal lasted three hours 27-minutes.

"It's like a dream, I have to wake up I think because it's unbelievable," Baghdatis told Australian Open commentator Jim Courier in a postmatch interview. "I don't know what to say; it's just amazing."

Early in the match, it didn't look like Baghdatis would even see a fifth set. The more experienced player, the 24-year-old Nalbandian took it to the Cypriot from the baseline. Moving Baghdatis from one side of the court to the other, Nalbandian was able to get the better of the rallies the first two sets.

Making it look easy by ripping some of his 48 winners from both sides of the racket, it appeared Nalbandian wouldn't have much trouble reaching his second career slam final. After the two players traded early breaks, Nalbandian broke Baghdatis in the eighth game and then served out the first set.

The second set saw a red hot Nalbandian continue to take control of points. With Baghdatis struggling on his serve, the solid returner picked the first-time semifinalist apart to jump out to a two break 5-1 lead. With Baghdatis running low on energy, Nalbandian gave his opponent a reason to believe. After Baghdatis finally held for 2-5, a loose service game by Nalbandian suddenly made it 3-5.

Energized by his cheering section, Baghdatis started taking it to Nalbandian. When Baghdatis held and then broke Nalbandian again to tie it at five, he pumped his fist and smiled at his corner. But the momentum was shortlived as Nalbandian broke back and finally served it out to go up two sets.

Despite the disheartening conclusion, a refocused Baghdatis continued to adjust against his tough opponent. Ratcheting up his serve and shortening the rallies by flattening out his groundstrokes, he started to turn the tables on Nalbandian. Able to hold serve easier, Baghdatis pressured Nalbandian's serve. After holding for a 3-2 lead, he finally got the break he needed to get back in the match. Ripping a couple of his match high 52 winners from the forehand side, the former 2003 Australian Open junior champion went ahead 4-2. Serving at a high clip, Baghdatis held twice, closing it out with an ace to loud cheers from the crowd.

With momentum clearly on his side, Baghdatis continued the turnaround by converting the only break point he had and then served out the fourth set to push it to a deciding final set.

In his career, Baghdatis was a perfect 6-0 in five setters, including two five set victories in Melbourne against Radek Stepanek and Ljubicic. Nalbandian was 10-6 but once blew a two set lead to Roddick in the same round at the '03 U.S. Open.

After a short break by Nalbandian, the final set got underway. Showing his mettle, Nalbandian held and then earned an early break for 2-0. However, Baghdatis wouldn't go away, bouncing back with a break of his own and hold of serve to level the match two all. After Nalbandian went up 3-2, he recorded his seventh break of Baghdatis to pull within two games of the final.

But as unpredictable as this semifinal was, it was far from over. In the very next game, Nalbandian couldn't hold it together and let Baghdatis break for 3-4. After the Cypriot evened the score at four all, he would finally go ahead when he broke Nalbandian for the eighth time at love. A game away from his lifelong dream, Baghdatis was cheered on by Greek supporters.

After a Nalbandian forehand winner made the score 15-All, the match took another twist. With the roof open the entire night, suddenly it poured to delay the conclusion, leading to Baghdatis raising his arms to high above as if to say, 'Why now?'

After a half hour delay, the two players returned to centre court. Predictably, the ending wasn't without drama. At 30-All, Baghdatis setup his first match point with a service winner. During it, he appeared to have hit a backhand winner which nicked the back of the baseline. Unfortunately, it was overruled by the chair umpire. Resilient all night, Baghdatis forced a Nalbandian forehand error to arrive at his second match point. Fittingly, he won it with his 15th ace of the match down the tee, sending his supporters into a frenzy.

In utter shock at what he accomplished, the excited Baghdatis smiled, raised his arms to the crowd and dropped to his knees.

Asked by Courier how he pulled off the comeback, Baghdatis laughed and said, "To tell you the truth I don't really know."

"I'm playing amazing tennis, I just stopped thinking and just played my tennis, tried to be very aggressive and everything was going in. I'm just in my own world right now I think."

Baghdatis will meet the winner of Friday night's other semifinal between top ranked Roger Federer and 21st seeded Nicolas Kiefer.

Courier also asked Baghdatis if he expected to make this kind of run to which he replied, "It's a dream (of mine) to play here and win this tournament- I believe it, my coach believes it, the guys I work with believe it, my parents believe it- I work for that and I believe in it."

One more victory and he'll make everyone believers.


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