Federer puts out Baghdatis fire in fluent fightback

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Marcos Baghdatis, the exuberant Cypriot who charmed his way into the Australian Open final, ran into the brick wall that is Roger Federer yesterday but gave the world No 1 a genuine fright.

The unseeded Baghdatis captured the first set and came close to adding the second, before Federer regrouped to win his seventh Grand Slam - and his third consecutive major, matching a record achieved in the Open era only by Pete Sampras in 1993 and Australia's Rod Laver 24 years earlier.

Laver himself was in the stadium named after him to present the trophy to Federer who, true to form, burst into tears during his acceptance speech. "I hope you know how much this means to me," he told the crowd, his voice quavering.

The Swiss player could use the victory as a springboard to emulate Laver, the last man to claim a Grand Slam: all four majors in the same year. At the least, the French Open, which still eludes him, would give him a "Roger Slam" - in the manner of Serena Williams, who dubbed her four successive majors a "Serena Slam".

Baghdatis, meanwhile, will leave Melbourne with stars in his eyes. Ranked No 54 at the end of last year, he has yet to win a tour title and had not previously gone further than a Grand Slam fourth round. He defeated three top 10 players here, including the No 2 seed, Andy Roddick, and won a huge following in Australia and beyond.

The 20-year-old, who was enthusiastically supported by Melbourne's Greek and Cypriot communities, said: "It's like a dream come true, and I just woke up at the end." For the first 90 minutes, it seemed as if he might pull off one of the most sensational upsets in Grand Slam history. While he came out firing on all cylinders, Federer was surprisingly passive and allowed the talented Cypriot to dominate.

The top seed looked out of sorts as Baghdatis broke serve twice in the first set and then again early in the second, nearly going two breaks up for a 3-0 lead.

At that point the momentum changed. Federer saved two break points, broke back to level at 2-2, and began playing with his usual confidence and flair.

Nevertheless, a tie-break seemed imminent, as the underdog, serving at 5-6, reached 40-0. But he lost the next five points and the set - with the umpire, Pascal Maria, controversially over-ruling to give a Baghdatis backhand out on set point.

From then on, it was a one-sided contest. Federer won 11 straight games; Baghdatis cramped up from stress, and had to have his left calf muscle massaged by the trainer.

Federer's 50th winner brought up two championship points; a backhand error by the Cypriot sealed his fate.

Federer, who memorably wept after winning Wimbledon for the first time in 2003, tore off his headband and slumped over the net. He broke down throughout his speech and twice embraced Laver. Baghdatis, who admitted to a few tears himself afterwards, said he understood just how he felt.

Baghdatis said his game broke down after he started "thinking too much", including about the possibility of winning. "I got a bit stressed out, stopped playing my game, and gave Roger the chance to come in and be aggressive. Maybe I was also a bit scared of him, and I didn't really believe in it [victory].

"I'm a bit unhappy but it's just after the match and I think it will take me one or two days to come back and smile again," he added.

Federer said he was "incredibly nervous", mainly because of the pressure not to lose to an extremely popular and much lower-ranked opponent. For the first set and a half, that seemed a real possibility. "I was sweating like crazy because I had to fight so hard on my service games," he said. "I thought 'if it continues like this, I'm going to lose, and only a miracle will save me'."

Comparisons are once again being made with Sampras who, in a strange symmetry, had also won seven majors by the age of 24. Asked whether he had a growing sense of his place in history, Federer replied: "Obviously, yes. I've left my idols, Becker and Edberg, behind me now."