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Chance of Reign for Baghdatis

Upstart Cypriot survives a sudden shower and a case of nerves to beat Nalbandian in five sets and reach men's final.

January 27, 2006|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

MELBOURNE, Australia — It wasn't quite the rain scene in "Shawshank Redemption," but it landed in the same neighborhood in terms of timing and drama.

Twenty-year-old Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus was three points away from a spot in the Australian Open final, the match resting on his racket, when the heavens opened, unleashing a brief but heavy rainstorm. Baghdatis, getting pelted with rain, held his arms wide and looked up in disbelief.

Talk about nature trying to ice the server.

Remarkably, the youngster held it together for about 25 more minutes, surviving the rain delay, his nerves and a questionable overrule on his first match point after the brief break. On his second match point, Baghdatis fired an ace down the middle, a 134-mph serve.

Baghdatis 1, Nature 0.

For those who prefer more conventional scoring, the unseeded Baghdatis defeated No. 4 David Nalbandian of Argentina, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, in 3 hours 27 minutes in the Australian Open semifinals Thursday, sending his chanting band of Cypriot and Greek fans into dancing delirium at Rod Laver Arena.

"It is like a story," said Baghdatis, who won his third five-setter here.

Talk about an understatement from the Cypriot tennis pioneer. In the latest installment, he rallied from a two-set deficit, dealt with an inconveniently timed Australia Day fireworks celebration, and found enough left to come back one more time after trailing, 2-4, in the fifth.

And this was before the intervention of the rain.

"I just start thinking what will happen after the match and stuff. I went in the changing room and I just saw my coach," Baghdatis said. "I told him, 'What do I do?' I just didn't know what to do.

"He just told me, 'I'm not scared for you, I'm scared for him.' It gave me ... it pumped me up. I think it was good coaching, so was great."

Nalbandian, who said he was suffering from an abdominal muscle issue, has faltered at this juncture before at a Grand Slam. In the 2003 U.S. Open semifinals, he took the first two sets against Andy Roddick and held a match point but went on to lose.

Instead of getting the chance to play either No. 1 Roger Federer of Switzerland or Nicolas Kiefer of Germany in the final, Nalbandian will be lamenting yet another lost opportunity, trying to figure out how it slipped away.

"Well, I get a lot of chances to win the match," Nalbandian said. "So I can't understand how I missed that opportunity to win it."

Baghdatis has helped save a men's tournament desperately short on star power, starting with his four-set victory against Roddick in the fourth round and continuing with his five-set drama against Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia in the quarterfinals.

That's nothing compared to what he has done for a proud Greek and Cypriot community in Melbourne. Blue and white have become the unofficial colors at Melbourne Park. Meanwhile, there's not a lot of work getting done or books being cracked open these days in Cyprus, an island nation that has all of 12 tennis clubs.

"I heard that they closed ... no, they didn't close the schools, but nobody went to school today," Baghdatis said. "It's just amazing. I don't know. I don't know what they will do [for the final]. It will be fun, I think."

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