August 7, 2010

Coming to America

It's been a strange, almost surreal year so far for Marcos Baghdatis.

The one-time top ten player kicked off 2010 having just regained a double-digit ranking and won the second tournament he played, a solid event in Sydney where he beat Mardy Fish and Lleyton Hewitt on the road to the title. His crowning moment, though, came two months later when he defeated Roger Federer in an amazing come-from-behind victory in Indian Wells. He lost his subsequent match, however, and hasn't beaten a top-twenty player since. Though he climbed his way back to #25 in the world, he nevertheless seemed like he'd lost some of that momentum.

That is, until he came to Washington.

It was his first trip to the U.S. capital, but Baghdatis appeared to fit in well. Consistently strongest on hard courts, he's won three of his four titles on the surface and boasts a sixty-plus win percentage on the surface. Back in his heyday he made the finals of the Austrailian Open, even taking a set from Roger there. But he'd never done too well in the States and has yet to pass the second round at the U.S. Open.

In D.C. he looked to change that record. As the eighth seed he received a bye in the first round, but faced a tough draw from the get-go. Horacio Zeballos, who's been strong all year, took the Cypriot to two tiebreaks in his opening match and Ilya Marchenko stole the second set before ceding in the third. Third seeded Fernando Verdasco should have presented a bigger problem in the quarters, but in a match with seven breaks of serve, Baghdatis was the ultimate winner.

His opponent today in the semis was an equally tested Xavier Malisse, a man who's been clawing his own way back from a precipitous drop out of the top two hundred. He'd racked up some big wins this year already -- Tommy Haas in Houston, John Isner in Memphis, Novak Djokovic at Queen's Club -- and he gave Andy Roddick quite a run in LA last week. Here on the eastern seaboard, Malisse beat three seeded players in a row, including Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych in the quarters. That's quite an accomplishment for someone who'd spent almost all of last year on the Challenger tour.

"It's tough to be on the sidelines watching everyone else play," Malisse said in the press conference after his match Saturday.

And you could see just how much both these guys missed the big events throughout their match. Malisse struggled on his serve early -- though with Baghdatis only getting thirty-six percent of his first attempts in during the opening set, neither man really served well. But Marcos broke his opponent in just the third game and got an insurance break a few games later to run off with the early lead in just over half an hour.

The second set was much more competitive and lasted over an hour as Xavier finally seemed to get into a rhythm on his own serve. With Baghdatis serving at 3-4, Malisse got some traction, playing smart shots and earning only his second break point of the match when his opponent twisted his ankle and fell to the floor. In a sweet moment, Malisse brought over a bag of ice, checked that Baghdatis was not severely injured and patiently endured the time-out. When Marcos won the next two points it was clear he would not be hampered by the fall.

"That was typical sportsmanship from Xavier. I would do the same thing -- I have done it before, but some guys don't. It doesn't happen every day," Baghdatis said after the match.

A few games later, he had the chance to serve out the match -- he'd converted on the third break opportunity he'd had in the second set -- but Malisse was finally able to find traction in his return game and forced a tiebreak. But from there it was smooth sailing for Baghdatis. After rolling off to a 5-1 lead, he let a couple points go but ultimately displayed some strong baseline hitting to reach his first final at an American tournament.

And because I hate when guys double fault on match point, here's a look at the amazing (twenty-six stroke) point that won it for Baghdatis:

He'll take on the winner of tonight's semifinal between David Nalbandian and fourth seed Marin Cilic, another couple of guys who've been on the comeback trail this year. He leads David in their head-to-heads, but hasn't beaten Cilic in their previous two matches. But if he continues to play as smart as he did today, he has more than a fighting chance to finally make an impression on American soil.

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