Sunday, January 29, 2006

Emotional Federer Bests Baghdatis For Australian Open, Wins Seventh Career Slam

Even the best can get emotional during the biggest moments. Just ask 2006 Australian Open Roger Federer, who had more trouble making his victory speech after coming back from a set down to defeat unseeded Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis 5-7, 7-5, 6-0, 6-2 Sunday night in Melbourne at Rod Laver Arena.

"I guess it's all coming out now," a teary eyed Federer said during the ceremony. "I've had some hard speeches, but this one is a little rough right now."

Playing in front of tennis legend Rod Laver for who the arena was named, Federer clawed his way back from a set and break down to win his seventh career grand slam title. Amazingly, the 24-year-old Swiss world number one is now a perfect seven-for-seven on such occasions. Even more remarkable, since the beginning of 2004, Federer is 167-10, having taken six of the last nine slams (Australian Open-'04, '06, Wimbledon-'04-05, U.S. Open-'04-05).

In a championship match which lasted two hours 46-minutes, it didn't come easy for Federer against surprise finalist Baghdatis. Making his slam final debut, the 54th ranked 20-year-old traded blow for blow against Federer, testing the champion's mettle. During heated rallies, each mixed up variety, tossing in topspin and slice along with doses of heat to keep the crowd riveted.

During the first set, Baghdatis was sharper in all facets. Keeping Federer off balance with a high percentage of first serves and pinpoint groundstrokes which were struck like lasers, Baghdatis took early control by forcing several uncharacteristic errors from Federer.

Both players traded breaks in the fifth and sixth games. A missed Federer forehand gave Baghdatis a 3-2 lead but it was shortlived when he double faulted to put the set back on serve.

With tension mounting as each held twice for five all, Baghdatis made his move to notch his second break. Taking the action to a tenative Federer, he took the last four points. When a Federer forehand sailed long, he went ahead 6-5. Having successfully served out sets against top 10 victims Andy Roddick, Ivan Ljubicic and David Nalbandian already, the Cypriot showed nerves of steel again. Some hustle forced a Federer missed volley to reach two set points. When Federer netted a forehand for his 16th unforced error, Baghdatis claimed the 43-minute set. It was the first time in the tournament Federer dropped the opening set.

In it, Baghdatis made four less errors. Though Federer had four more winners (15-11), Baghdatis was more consistent, winning 17 of 19 points on his first serve compared to 18 of 28 for Federer.

Baghdatis continued to look sharp in the second set. Pressuring Federer's second serve by returning from inside the baseline, he gave Federer fits to break again in the opening game. Taking it to the top seed, Baghdatis broke when Federer dumped a forehand into the net. After holding for 2-0, a pivotal third game took place. With Federer struggling, Baghdatis was in position to go up two breaks. But the resilient champion fought both off, including a clutch forehand winner down the line. Had Baghdatis converted either, the whole complexion of the match might have changed.

Instead, it allowed Federer to gain momentum. Taking advantage of a loose game by Baghdatis, he broke back when Baghdatis missed a backhand. As Federer got back in the match, he applied more pressure. Looking for a break in the eighth game, Federer was turned away by Baghdatis to tie it four all. Serving to go up 6-5, Federer ran into some trouble. Though he never faced a break chance, Federer climbed out of a Love-30 hole and a couple of Deuces with some big aces to finally hold. He outaced Baghdatis 4-1 in the set.

It seemed destined for a tiebreaker but with Baghdatis a point from forcing it, Federer took the final five points to square the match. When a Baghdatis forehand was properly overruled long by the chair umpire, Federer took the 55-minute set by the same score. How close was the set? Federer had 13 winners to Baghdatis' 12 while committing one more unforced error (15-14). The difference was Federer converted two of four break points while Baghdatis was one of five.

That's when Federer as he often does ceased control. After an easy hold for 1-0, he was more aggressive against Baghdatis' serve. Hitting bigger returns and attaking the net more, he forced his inexperienced opponent into errors. When Baghdatis misfired a forehand wide, Federer broke for 2-0. After withstanding a Baghdatis challenge in the next game, he took a commanding double break lead. When Federer saved a break point with a stab volley in the fifth game, a frustrated Baghdatis yelled out.

In similar fashion to how he eliminated Nicolas Kiefer in the semifinals, Federer finished off the set in fine fashion to bagel Baghdatis. A crosscourt forehand winner and mishit backhand return which landed on the line gave him the brief 24-minute set.

During the dominant set, Federer converted both break points and took 27 of 37 total points. He also had eight winners to just four errors while Baghdatis had double the amount of errors to winners (10-5).

The fourth set looked like it would be a coronation. From five all in the second, Federer won 11 consecutive games to go ahead a set and 3-0. During a point in the first game, Baghdatis began to show the effects of going five sets three times to make the final. Due to a cramp in his left calf, he fell down to lose a point. Despite the pain, Baghdatis played a great point against Federer which saw them slug the ball corner to corner before he just missed a backhand winner.

After having the cramp treated during a three minute injury timeout, the determined Baghdatis fought his way onto the board with a crosscourt forehand winner to trail 1-3. He stayed alive by denying a break point which would've given Federer a 5-1 lead. After holding for 2-4, on his last legs, the Cypriot made one final effort to break back but Federer saved it with a forehand winner down the line. In the set, he struck 13 winners.

Up 5-2, Federer broke Baghdatis for the eighth time in 12 chances to seal victory. After another forehand winner gave him two championship points, when Baghdatis netted a forehand, a jubilant Federer pumped his fist and then shook hands with Baghdatis.

One of the differences in the match was Federer's success rate on Baghdatis' serve. While Federer broke eight times, his opponent managed to go three of 10. He also had 11 aces while Baghdatis hit six.

Federer finished with 16 more winners (Federer-50 Baghdatis-34) while both made 48 unforced errors. One other notable difference was how well Federer fared on Baghdatis' second serve. He won 39 of 61 points. Ultimately, it added up to taking 14 of the final 16 games.

During ceremony, the legendary champion Laver- who was the last man to win all four majors in the same year (1969)- presented the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup to Federer. Federer broke down after receiving the trophy. "You don't know how much this means to me," he tearfully said to Baghdatis during his speech. He cried again when he thanked Rod Laver, drawing a loud ovation from the audience.

Baghdatis thanked his Greek supporters along with his coach and family.

"It's a dream come true," he said to loud cheers from his fans. "It's just amazing. I love everybody watching in Cyprus. Kisses."

Since last summer, Federer has won the last three slams (Wimbledon, U.S. Open, Australian Open). He joined exclusive company with Pete Sampras, who accomplished the feat by winning the same three majors spanning the end of '93 and beginning of '94.

Ironically, Federer is the same age as Sampras when he won his seventh of a men's slam record 14. "It's quite scary if I compare it. I'm on the same road but I've got to maintain it. It would be great to challenge it, but it's not my first priority."

"Winning slams is not easy to do. It is a dream come true for me every time I win one."

Maybe not. But he sure makes it look that way.

Bryan Tandem Win Doubles Title: America wasn't without a slam champion at Melbourne Park thanks in large part to the number one ranked dynamic brother duo of Mike and Bob Bryan. In an ultracompetitive men's doubles final, they won their first ever Australian Open crown in three tries by rallying to defeat the seventh seeded Leander Paes and Martin Damm 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

The match featured some exciting rallies at the net with both teams inventing ways to finish off points. During one exchange, Paes fought off a volley at his feet and swatted it back for a winner. In another nifty finish, Mike Bryan spun a topspin forehand winner past Paes.

The difference in the one hour 59-minute match was that Bryans converted both break points while their opponents were only one of 10.

Bob Bryan concluded it with an exclamation point by putting away a smash at match point, leading to a big hug with his brother at the net before shaking hands with Paes and Damm.

"Unbelievable. I had nothing left in my body by the end of that match. It was so emotional," Bob Bryan said. "You know, there was a lot of energy there, they were doing chest pumps, we were doing chest pumps. We were hanging on."

An excited brother put it in perspective.

"You know, it feels good to get this notch because over the last two years, came up a little short. But, you know, there's nothing more special than winning a Slam with your brother. So this is going to feel good for a long time," pointed out Mike Bryan.

The Bryans have now won the last two slams. They also won the '03 French Open, meaning the only major they have yet to win is Wimbledon.

In the mixed doubles final, Martina Hingis combined with Mahesh Bhupati to capture the title 6-3, 6-5 over Daniel Nestor and Elena Likhovtseva. It was Hingis' first ever mixed doubles championship and was a fitting way to celebrate her successful comeback after three years away.

Along with five career slam titles in singles, Hingis now owns nine doubles titles.

In the women's doubles final, history was made when China's own Zi Yan and Jie Zheng became the first ever slam champions from the country by coming back to beat top seeded American Lisa Raymond and Australian Samantha Stosur 2-6, 7-6 (7), 6-3.

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