The game is not the same for Marcos Baghdatis.
In 2006, just two short years ago, Baghdatis came to Melbourne Park as a smiling 21-year-old for whom tennis was sheer joy.
A former junior champion but still largely unheard of, he arrived replete with long hair, a backpacker’s beard, a high voltage smile, and a curious superstition in which he would bounce the ball between his legs before serving.
The media loved it, and Baghdatis quickly became a darling of the press.
More than that, he had a cavalier approach to his game, a love of shotmaking that took him all the way to the final—where he even took a set off the great Roger Federer.
That was 2006.
In 2008, the long hair, the beard, the superstition, the sympathetic media, and the lustrous smile are all gone.
Baghdatis' cousin was banned from the tournament—though later given a reprieve—after being pepper sprayed by police for pouring a beer over an officer who had been summoned to reprimand Greek supporters for racially taunting Chilean player Fernando Gonzales.
Worse, a video then landed on You Tube in which Baghdatis was shown lighting flares and chanting anti-Turkish slogans amid a group of his supporters.
Things weren’t much better on the court.
Baghdatis was burdened with an odious draw, in which he took on Grand Slam winners in each of the first three rounds.
He took four sets to shake off Thomas Johansson, five to edge Marat Safin, then had to square off against local hope Lleyton Hewitt.
When he lost the final in 2006, not even the pain of defeat could wipe away Baghdatis’ smile—while the champion Federer wept uncontrollably.
Two years later, it was Baghdatis’ turn to break down in tears.
In one of the most bizarre matches ever played on Rod Laver Arena, Baghdatis was ousted 6-4, 7-5, 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 by Hewitt—a contest just as dramatic as the Federer-Tipsarevic encounter earlier in the night.
They might call this one the Caffeine Classic—because of the late finish of the Federer epic, the match didn't start until just before midnight...and finished four hours and 45 minutes later.
It was the latest finish to a match in Australian Open history—and about 40 minutes before the sun came up.
If the match lacked the quality conjured up by Federer and Tipsarevic—and it did —it more than made up for it with some of the most inexplicable twists you could imagine.
There was Baghdatis’ brave recovery from a twisted ankle early in the third set, after which he needed two injury timeouts.
He battled on manfully for the next few games to lead 5-3 but then seemed to lose his mind, as Hewitt, bellowing exhortations to himself after every point, reeled off nine of the next 10 games to take the third set and lead 5-1 in the fourth.
The Cypriot’s game had fallen apart, and it seemed as though a week of bad headlines had taken its toll.
Baghdatis began to commit professional suicide, accelerating his own demise with a range of mindless points, including three unsuccessful backhand dropshots in the same game.
The Cypriot had clearly mentally checked out.
But in yet another confounding twist, the No. 15 seed, freed from caring about the contest, began to profit from his devil-may-care tennis, regularly laughing to himself as his improbable shotmaking brought him back into contention.
The strategy—if it was a strategy—worked, and Hewitt tightened up, losing his serve at 5-1 and 5-3.
Baghdatis, who minutes before had been measuring himself for a body bag, won the fourth set in a tiebreaker and roared with laughter at his triumph—the reaction of a man who had just jumped from a tall building only to have a strong wind blow him back through a lower-floor window.
Sadly for him, though, it was Hewitt who had the last laugh.
Serving at 2-2, Baghdatis’ first serve deserted him, and Hewitt finally broke after a game lasting 15 minutes and eight deuces.
When he broke for a second time to take the match, at almost 5 AM local time, an inconsolable Baghdatis left the court in tears with the crowd standing as one.
We said this match would be a thriller.
But nobody predicted this.