Baghdatis unfazed by fireworks, stress, rain or the aggression of Nalbandian

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Marcos Baghdatis has been the sensation of the Australian Open and yesterday the unseeded Cypriot extended his extraordinary run, defeating the No 4 seed, David Nalbandian, from two sets to love down to win a place in Sunday's final.

Baghdatis, 20 years old and No 54 in the world, had not even played in a Grand Slam quarter-final before last week. Now he has the chance to fight for the trophy on Rod Laver Arena, against Roger Federer, the top seed, or Nicolas Kiefer, the No 21 seed, who will contest the other semi-final this morning.

Yesterday he held his nerve when a downpour interrupted play as he served for the match after three hours and 24 minutes. Remaining calm even after a dubious over-rule on his first match point, he sealed his 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory with an ace on the second.

Baghdatis, who had already beaten three seeds including the No 2, Andy Roddick, sank to his knees and bowed his head. Asked by Jim Courier in a courtside interview if he thought he was dreaming, the delighted Cypriot replied: "It's just amazing. It's unbelievable. I have to wake up."

Asked how he got back into the match after being two sets down, he said: "To tell you the truth, I don't really know. The first two sets I was really stressed out, I didn't know what to do," Baghdatis said.

"He was playing really good, really aggressive but then what I said was, I just have no choice. I just have to go on the court and play my game and play aggressive. I just stopped thinking and just played my tennis. Everything was going in. I was just in my own world, I think."

Nalbandian, who was runner-up at Wimbledon in 2002 but has since failed to reach another Grand Slam final, looked inconsolable. The Argentinian had dominated the early stages of the match after surviving a break of serve early in the first set, and it looked as if Baghdatis had finally hit the wall.

In the second set, however, the Cypriot rallied from 5-1 down to draw level at 5-5, with the crowd - including members of Melbourne's Greek community, clad in white and blue - thunderously behind him. Then came the first distraction: fireworks nearby, marking Australia Day, when the British penal colony was founded.

Baghdatis, a former junior world No1, was serving at 15-40. He looked startled by the noise and, after hitting a forehand crosscourt winner, twisted his ankle and lost the next point. Nalbandian then served out the set.

Seemingly oblivious to the pressure, Baghdatis played keepy-up, soccer-style, with a tennis ball during the break. From then on it was a two-man contest; the Cypriot took the third set despite an early break of his serve, and he broke Nalbandian once in the fourth, holding his own serve the rest of the way.

In the deciding set the pair swapped breaks of serve, with the Argentinian - the reigning Masters Cup champion - at one point leading 4-2. But at 4-4 Nalbandian produced a string of errors including a double-fault to give Baghdatis a 5-4 lead. It was then, with the latter three points from victory as he served for the match at 15-15, that the heavens opened, forcing organisers to close the roof.

The men returned to the locker room, where they had to wait for half an hour while the Rebound Ace court surface was towelled dry.

On their return yet more controversy awaited. On his first match point, Baghdatis hit a backhand that the umpire, Andreas Egli, over-ruled as long - although a television replay showed it on the line. Nalbandian then netted a forehand to set up a second match point and, with beautiful timing, the Cypriot struck his 15th ace.

Whatever happens in the final, Baghdatis - who won 17 of the final 21 points last night - will more than double his career earnings of $346,661 (£194,364), thanks to his progress at Melbourne Park.

Although he left his home (the resort town of Limassol) at 13 to attend a tennis academy in Paris, his career has been keenly followed in the Greek half of Cyprus. To date he is the only Cypriot to take part in a Grand Slam. He told Courier: "It's a dream to play here and win this tournament."

Celebrations grow as tennis fever grips Cyprus

Celebrations in Limassol, close to Marcos Baghdatis' home town of Paramytha, began several days ago and with every one of his wins they keep getting bigger. Many shops remained closed yesterday while the city took to the streets to celebrate Baghdatis' advance to the final.

"As soon as the match was over people started walking towards the centre, dancing and singing," said Maroula Giannikou who with her sister Elena was allowed to skip school to watch the match. "Some got so carried away that they jumped into the fountain."

Michalis Papadopoulos, a civil servant in the capital, Nicosia, says that people in shops and cafes have been talking about little else. "We never had any world-class tennis players in Cyprus before and we have never really been excited about tennis. Now with Baghdatis it feels like we've just discovered America."

Elinda Labropoulou

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