Baghdatis too lean and mean for Safin

Paul Newman@PaulN54
Friday 18 January 2008 01:00

Despite his status as a leading international sportsman, Marcos Baghdatis always had the appearance of a man who would order the moussaka rather than a horiatiki salata on a night out in his native Cyprus. This year, however, the 2006 Australian Open finalist looks determined to satisfy his hunger only while at work.

Baghdatis, who also seems to have invested in a new shaver, has never been a slouch around the court, but the trimmer version of the world No 16 was flying through the air yesterday with the speed of an Andy Roddick serve. A roller-coaster 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 victory over Marat Safin, the last man to beat Roger Federer on these courts, earned Baghdatis a third-round encounter tomorrow with Lleyton Hewitt, another player who knows his way around here better than most. The Australian beat Denis Istomin, of Uzbekistan, 7-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-1.

In the two years since his only appearance in a Grand Slam final, when he lost in four sets to Federer, the 22-year-old Baghdatis has often failed to live up to his undoubted potential. Although one of the sweetest strikers of the ball, he usually pays for failing to sustain his standards throughout a tournament.

For a while it seemed the same would be true here. Having left Safin shaking his head with the brilliance of his all-court game in the first two sets, Baghdatis let the Russian back in the match, although there was little he could do in the face of an all-out assault. The Cypriot upped his game in the final set, however, and secured victory after three and a quarter hours.

The crowd seemed uncertain whom to cheer, as both men are popular figures in these parts. Baghdatis, who rarely has a smile off his face, had his usual vociferous backing – one group wore gas masks and chanted "Pepper spray! Pepper spray!" in a taunt aimed at local police after the way they dealt with noisy Greek fans earlier in the week – but there was probably more widespread support for Safin.

The stadium was nearly full when the match finished well past midnight on a day when the attendance of 62,885 broke the world record for a Grand Slam tournament.

Safin has enjoyed some of his finest moments here. The 27-year-old Russian reached the 2002 and 2004 finals, losing to Thomas Johansson and Federer respectively, before taking his revenge over the latter the following year in a memorable five-set semi-final. He went on to beat Hewitt in the final, but has not won a title since.

Injuries have taken their toll, though the world No 58's problems are sometimes in the head as much as the body. It does not take much to bait the Russian bear, who received a warning from the umpire after smashing his racket in anger at going 3-0 down in the final set. "I should have won," he said. "I was pretty tense at the beginning. This will be the first and last time that's going to happen to me."

Baghdatis thought the key factors had been his superiority on the big points and his improved serve in the final set. "I'm pretty fit," he added. "I worked hard in the winter and now I'm ready for matches like that."

Federer did not lose a set in winning the title 12 months ago and dropped only three games for the second round in succession when he beat Fabrice Santoro 6-1, 6-2, 6-0 yesterday. Andy Murray is one of several professionals who nominate Santoro as their favourite player. The 35-year-old Frenchman has broken Andre Agassi's record by appearing in his 62nd Grand Slam singles tournament here this week.

Jamie Murray and Max Mirnyi, the No 12 seeds, fell at the first hurdle in the men's doubles, losing 7-6, 1-6, 6-3 to France's Edouard Roger-Vasselin and Gilles Simon. Murray has yet to play in the mixed doubles, in which he partners Liezel Huber.

There were few surprises in the women's singles, although Svetlana Kuznetsova and Venus Williams gave patchy performances in beating Tzvetana Pironkova and Camille Pin respectively in straight sets. Ana Ivanovic, the No 4 seed, was more impressive, brushing aside Tathiana Garbin for the loss of only three games.

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