You don't tug on Superman's cape,
You don't spit into the wind,
You don't pull the mask off an ol' Lone Ranger,
And you don't mess around with [Fed]...
— Jim Croce (paraphased)
After all, Federer had not played since the Australian Open, after coming down with a mysterious lung infection that forced him to pull out of Dubai. He had to be match-deficient, sucking air, and unable to close the deal mentally.
Seeded as high as No. 8 in the world in 2006, Baghdatis had seen a real turnaround of his tennis fortunes in 2008-09. He dealt with multiple injuries and could not get his game back on track. Every time he tried to re-emerge, the Cypriot would suffer another injury.
He fell as low as No. 148 in July of 2009, but 2010 has marked a real turnaround of his tennis fortunes as Baghdatis recovered his energy, his fitness, and his game.
The Cypriot has continued to climb out of his 2009 funk by playing a great deal of tennis and playing it well. He won in Sydney in 2010 defeating Richard Gasquet in the final. The Cypriot made it to round of 32 at the 2010 Australian Open, facing his most difficult opponent in Lleyton Hewitt. Unfortunately for Baghdatis, though, he was forced to retire with a right shoulder injury.
Luckily for him he was able to recover, and Baggy went on to the semifinals at Dubai, losing to eventual champion Novak Djokovic. The Cypriot had played six events plus the Davis Cup before stepping foot on the grounds at Indian Wells.
Federer played and won seven rounds during the 2010 Australian Open plus the exhibition in Abu Dhabi. He had not stepped foot on a tennis court to play a match since the Australian Open ended on Jan. 31, 2010—about six weeks ago.
All the rust clogged the magnificent Swiss machine and shut him down in significant moments Tuesday as he lost this third-round encounter, 7-5, 5-7, 6-7, to Baghdatis, who hung in there tough, never giving up on his chances to win.
Federer was able to close out the first set with a break of serve, winning 7-5. It appeared he would close out the second set in identical fashion, holding two match points as Baghdatis served at 5-4.
But Baghdatis held firm and won four points in a row and evened the set at 5-5. To punctuate that blow, the Cypriot broke Federer and then served out the set, evening matters at a set apiece.
In the third and final set, Federer was up 4-1 but let Baghdatis back into match with 46 unforced errors adding to his woes. He simply lacked the wherewithal to put Baghdatis away.
That had much to do with their match toughness. Baghdatis had been to war already on the tennis courts while Federer fiddled on practice courts. The result was predictable but by no means definitive.
For me, the match offered two positives.
1. Baghdatis is back. The crowd-pleasing, energetic, and hard-hitting Cypriot has returned to action. He has put behind his general malaise and seems ready to commit to staying in shape and winning big tournaments. He is a welcomed addition to the men’s tour.
2. Federer will use this loss as motivation and will commit to playing a bit more as the season progresses, ready to go all-out at Miami, the European clay courts, and most of all the French Open—never closing the door early on a legitimate calendar-year Slam.
Yes, the Baghdatis victory may be seen as more of a gift than a victory because, had Federer been match tough, “Baggy” would not have won this contest. That is taking nothing away from Baghdatis, because he won, and that is always the bottom line. Still, taken in perspective, normally it would not have been his victory.
It reminded me of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s victory over Federer at the Rogers Cup in Canada in 2009 when Federer was up 5-1 in the third set but failed to finish, allowing Tsonga to come back and take the victory. Then, too, Federer was returning to action after a long layoff. It was a very similar scenario.
It should be noted that Federer came back to take the next ATP Masters hardcourt tournament in Cincinnati, defeating Novak Djokovic in the final. It bodes well for Federer fans in Miami as Federer seeks to equal Andre Agassi’s 17 Masters Shields—as Federer sits holding 16 in second place.
Another record to equal or surpass.
Federer fans had to anguish briefly over this loss before realism set in. It was really bad luck for the No. 1 seed that Baghdatis should land in his quarter. Such is the nature of draws.
Now, as the tournament progresses, Federer fans will root for Baghdatis to win because he is personable, entertaining, and it makes Federer’s loss easier to take.
You just don’t tug on Superman’s cape unless you are ready to go all the way...