It must be something about the Australian sun that helps Marcos Baghdatis to burst into bloom in the first month of the tennis year.
And here he is again, jumping up the rankings and jumping all over his opponents, in one of the most highly anticipated come-backs of the tournament.
It was in his first Slam appearance in Melbourne in 2005 that he set the crowd alight with five-set wins in both the first and second rounds, and a demolition of No. 13 seed Tommy Robredo in the third round, before finally losing to Roger Federer in the fourth.
When he came into the 2006 Australian Open, he was newly in the top 100 but still unseeded. Again he set pulses racing with his thrilling brand of tennis and sunny personality.
He took out world No. 20 Radek Stepanek, No. 8 Ivan Ljubicic, and No. 4 David Nalbandian, all in five sets.
He managed to dismiss No. 3 Andy Roddick, in four.
Once more, he fell to Federer, but this time it was in the final, having taken the first set. It propelled him to his highest world ranking of No. 8.
Although 2007 saw him lose relatively early to Gael Monfils, Baghdatis was back to his dramatic Aussie ways in 2008, when he battled through five sets to beat Marat Safin, only to fall in another epic five-setter against Lleyton Hewitt.
What’s more, that match went down in the history books, with Hewitt winning in five sets at 4:33 in the morning—the latest finish ever in tournament history.
Yet again, the Baghdatis sun burst through the clouds in 2009. Returning to the tour after back injury and a fall to No. 100 in the rankings, he swept seeds such as Robin Soderling and Mardy Fish aside on his way to defeat, over four tough sets, at the hands of reigning champion Novak Djokovic.
And the story, to the delight of tennis fans around the world, continues this year. For the sparkling Baghdatis has come into Melbourne in hot form, and with high confidence.
He took the title in Sydney last week with wins over some big opponents such as Viktor Troicki and a resurgent Richard Gasquet. As a result, he jumped 11 places in the rankings this week to No. 31, within the realms of the seeds.
When the draw for the Open was made, therefore, the excitement was palpable. For there, in the third round, was the prospect of Baghdatis, the 2006 finalist, against the 2005 finalist Hewitt, in a repeat of their 2008 battle.
First, though, the larger-than-life Cypriot had to beat the grittiest of fighters, No. 17 seed David Ferrer. And, would you believe it, he did just that in his now signature Australian fashion.
In the opening set, Baghdatis forfeited five break-point opportunities before Ferrer seized his only break chance to take the set 6-4.
Baghdatis took an early break in the second, but Ferrer pulled it back and took that set, too, 6-3.
The battle continued to be intense and the rallies long, but the Spaniard looked certain to seal the match when he won an early break in the third.
By now, Baghdatis was almost exploding with pent-up emotion. He released his tension in unorthodox style by smashing two of his rackets at the end-change, and fought back to take the third set in a tie-break.
So, after two and three-quarter hours, it was game on.
Baghdatis broke early in the fourth, and levelled up a match that was now well into its fourth hour.
In the final set, he secured a 3-1 lead, but then began to suffer from cramp.
He took the maximum permitted treatment at two changes-of-end, but clearly needed to finish the match quickly. He broke serve once more, despite his first serve percentage dropping to just 46, and he began to attack the net with greater frequency and with great success.
Then, stepping up to serve for the match at 5-1, cramp hit his left thigh again. He hobbled to the baseline and began the game with a very abbreviated motion.
Ferrer, not surprisingly, worked like a terrier to keep the ball in play and Baghdatis had to go for the most outrageous winners, including a couple of exquisite angled volleys.
The cramp gradually eased off as he retrieved drop shots and played even more remarkable drop shots in return.
He scored an ace with his fastest serve of the match—132 m.p.h.—and finally got the better of an all-out attack from Ferrer to win in rapturous style.
There is a big Greek Cypriot contingency in Melbourne, and every one of them seemed to be in the Hisense arena to celebrate this victory: 4-6, 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-3, 6-1.
The blue, white, and yellow of the Greek Cypriot flags shimmered, the sun burned down, and Baghdatis burst into flower once again.
No doubt the inspiring, grinning, fervently Cypriot Baghdatis will aim to do just the same in one of the match-ups of the tournament on Saturday.
Although it is once again with Aussie’s own Hewitt, none of the home crowd should forget that their hero was one of those big opponents beaten, only last week, by Baghdatis in Sydney.
So once more, game on.
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