As we prepare for the first Grand Slam of the year, here is the first in a reprise of an idea introduced in 2009, taking a look back at some of the matches that made the headlines at the Australian Open.
It was a David and Goliath final.
It put a man who had already topped the world rankings for more than 100 weeks against a man who had only broken into the top 100 in the last year.
It pitched a man who had won each of the six Grand Slam finals he had already played against an unseeded entrant.
It was a face-off between a man with a 51-match winning streak on hard courts against a man he had beaten in all three of their previous meetings—and one of those defeats was at exactly the same tournament the year before.
The Goliath—a not entirely apposite description for this slight, youthful, 24-year-old figure—was Roger Federer.
The David—also slight, only fractionally shorter, and just 20 years old—was Marcos Baghdatis.
To add just a little piquancy to the encounter, Australia’s greatest champion—and winner of two calendar Grand Slams—had chosen this year to return, after a long absence, to the arena they had named after him: Rod Laver.
Federer had lost only four matches in the previous year, and held the Wimbledon and the U.S. Open titles. If he could win back the Australian title that he had forfeited the year before to a scintillating Marat Safin, he would need only the French to claim his own complete set of Slams.
Laver’s cup overran with enthusiasm for the two players. He described both Federer and Baghdatis as “a breathe of fresh air.”
The crowds, too, were electrified by the flowing, charismatic tennis that both men brought to the court. The Australians are the most ebullient and extrovert supporters of tennis and make the most of their short January window of live tennis on their home ground to express their passion.
But it was not simply the “champion versus the underdog” scenario that caught the crowd’s imagination. There were contrasts aplenty.
One was a tennis player already in full flower, while the other was bursting into bloom before their eyes.
One had an air of calm, serene introspection, while the other wore his heart on his sleeve, beaming the broadest smile at every opportunity.
One was already being touted as the inheritor of the Sampras mantle, while the other had yet to prove he had earned his place in the Grand Slam spotlight.
But they had a few things in common, too, particularly on that day they walked into the Rod Laver Arena.
The Federer ponytail of old, cropped into the now-familiar curls, was sported by Bahgdatis.
They both wore bandannas, both wore white, round-necked, loose tee shirts, and both wore black shorts. But while Federer sported peppermint green across his forehead and shoulders, Baghdatis chose flame orange.
One other addition to the Federer garb was a black ankle brace—a reminder of the injury he sustained at the Masters Cup a month before.
As the match got under way, the routes that the two men had taken to this final began to take on particular significance when the giant-killing Baghdatis imposed his game on Federer in the very first set.
And the young Cypriot had done just the same to a string of high-ranking players to earn this tilt at the title. No. 20 in the world, Radek Stepanek, had fallen in the second round in five sets, losing the first two.
Andy Roddick, third in the world, went out in the fourth round, in four sets, having lost the first.
Eighth in the world, Ivan Ljubicic, went the same way, losing the first two sets in a five-setter in the quarters.
And in the semis, No. 4 in the world, David Nalbandian, was beaten in even more spectacular fashion. The irrepressible Baghdatis pulled back from two sets down, and a break down in the final set, to win 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
Little wonder he was proving so popular, and not just with the huge Greek contingency that lit up every match he played.
Federer, on the other hand—as the No. 1 seed—had contended with only one top-20 player, but had not had an easy ride.
Against one of his oldest rivals, Tommy Haas, in the fourth round, Federer battled through five sets.
Against Nikolay Davydenko in the quarters, he took four sets—two of them long tiebreakers.
Federer then lost a set to Nicolas Kiefer in the semis.
Now, in the final, he too was stunned by the world No. 54.
Baghdatis set the pace with huge hitting and impressive serving that had Federer struggling from the off.
They swapped breaks in games five and six, but it was an edgy Federer who made the crucial mistake in game 12, dumping two shots in the net. For the first time in the tournament, Federer trailed by a set.
Then in the second set, Baghdatis immediately had Federer 0-40 down in his opening service game, hammering returns back at the world No. 1. Baghdatis converted the third break point and calmly consolidated his break to go 2-0 up. But he lost two chances in the third game for a double break.
Federer managed to break back to level to 2-2, and the set stayed on serve until 5-5.
Baghdatis went 30-0 up on Federer’s serve, but failed—just—to break through. It all looked certain to go to a tiebreak when Baghdatis went up 40-0 on his own serve, but he was pulled back and fired a forehand long to hand Federer the set.
That was the signal for the floodgates to open and for the Federer game to burst into full bloom.
He reeled off a further nine games in succession, attacking the Baghdatis serve, rushing the net, and forcing the Cypriot to drive forehand after forehand long.
The vociferous crowd became subdued and Baghdatis began to tire. In the second game of the fourth set, he fell, and then in the third he needed treatment for a cramp.
Baghdatis battled on, though, gaining a break point against Federer to equal the set in the seventh game. He was unable to convert it, and the die was cast. Federer ran out the winner, 5-7 7-5 6-0 6-2.
The humid evening air turned into a cauldron of high emotion that, in retrospect, would mirror the intensity of the 2009 award ceremony.
On both occasions, Federer was forced to speak in front of the man he admired more than any living tennis player. On both occasions, he broke down in tears.
Federer’s grief after his 2009 loss remains one of the year’s abiding images. But in 2006, he received the trophy from Laver in person. His words then took on an eerie echo: “I don't know what to say.”
Pausing to gather himself, Federer went on: “I hope you know how much this means to me. It is all coming out now. I have had some hard speeches, but this is a rough road now.”
With that, he embraced Laver in tears of joy: a vivid counterpoint to the consoling embrace he received from Rafael Nadal three years later.
Glowing as much in defeat as in his preceding victories, Baghdatis thrilled the crowed one last time. “It's a dream come true,” he said above the noise of the cheering fans. “It's just amazing. I love everybody watching in Cyprus. Kisses!”
For Baghdatis, his run in Melbourne took him to No. 26 in the world rankings and, by August, he had reached a career-high of No. 8. He ended 2006, still his most successful year, as world No. 12.
He went on, in 2007, to win his second ATP title and a career-high 48 matches.
But in 2008, he was struck down by back injuries, and fell to No. 100. His fight back up the rankings began in 2009, and he now faces the 2010 Australian Open back almost to where he started in 2006, at 42 in the world.
Federer’s 2006 win made him the first since Pete Sampras in 1994 to win three consecutive majors.
He went on to win a third Australian title in 2007 without losing a set. And that marked the start of a winning spree that saw him claim the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles and become the only man to perform that triple three times.
He, too, enters the 2010 Australian Open in the same position as when he entered the 2006 tournament: at the top of the pile.
Now treat yourself to seven minutes of very light footwork from a youthful Federer and Baghdatis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dl07FOTWFM8
Look out for the next in the series of Rewinds, coming soon.
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