Melbourne Park has always been a happy hunting ground for Marcos Baghdatis.
An Australian Open junior champion in 2003, he reached the fourth round of the men’s event in 2005, his then-best result at a major tournament. In 2006 he out-did that in a big way, enjoying a fairytale run to the final and captivating the crowds along the way with his audacious shotmaking and sunny demeanour.
That result was the highlight of a career-best season for the Cypriot, who rose to world No.8 shortly after reaching the Wimbledon semifinals.
Since then, it’s been a bumpier ride. There have been injuries – including a fractured wrist, ailing back and dodgy shoulder – which impeded his progress, and a loss of conditioning. But after a bit of pin-balling about the chart, his ranking appears to be going in the right direction once again.
It should continue doing so after Wednesday’s win over Japan’s Tatsuma Ito on Hisense Arena, in which he recovered from a slow start to win 3-6 6-3 6-2 6-2. It sends him into the third round of Australian Open 2013, where he will face No.4 seed David Ferrer.
“I think about that amazing run (at Australian Open 2006). It’s always in the back of my head. And I’m very proud of that. But I think my game today, I think tennis since changed a lot, it’s developed a lot in different ways, and it’s a bit harder,” Baghdatis said.
“But I think I am playing even better than what I used to play.”
That certainly looked to be true when Baghdatis opened the match with an immediate break and then held break points for a 3-0 lead. Yet as Ito settled, he began to match it with, and beat, the Cypriot from the baseline. Baghdatis’ vaunted shotmaking was curiously absent as the smaller Japanese player – an inch shorter and eight kilograms lighter – dictated the play, breaking serve in the eighth game and then serving out the first set.
Baghdatis had managed just two winners in the opening stanza to Ito’s nine, more content to rally far behind the baseline than step in and rip his groundstrokes.
It may have had something to do with the pressure he felt of playing front of his large and omnipresent band of Greek Cypriot supporters, a group he said he always wants to play well for.
“I use it positively. But the pressure is there when you have a big following in Melbourne,” he admitted.
“It’s a nice thing and a nice feeling. Don’t take me wrong, it’s a nice feeling and just a small pressure that I want to make them happy.”
His fans certainly would have been, as the Cypriot soon began to wrest control of proceedings. The winners started to flow more frequently, and began approaching Ito’s tally. Although games went on serve for much of the second set, Baghdatis finally converted one of his many break point opportunities in the eighth game and promptly held serve to level the match.
Soon it was conditioning that was to become the decisive factor. In a match between two players who had battled for five sets in the first round to reach this stage, played in blazing sun and heat that had both players reaching for the ice-towels, the Cypriot came up trumps. He can put that down to his rigorous training regime in the off-season between 2010 and 2011, during which he shed four kilograms and almost five body-fat percentage points.
His superior conditioning – which he has maintained – was evident as the match progressed.
In both the third and fourth sets Baghdatis went for the jugular, breaking serve at his first opportunity on both occasions. And as Ito’s game collapsed in a sea of lethargic errors – he finished with 53 – the 28th seed began to flaunt the repertoire that first lit up the courts all those years ago in Melbourne.
After serving out the match to love, he’ll be hoping those reflex passing shots, deft lobs and forcing groundstrokes help him through to the fourth round, a mark he has not reached at a Grand Slam event in four years.
“For sure (I believe I can come back to my former level), that’s why I’m still playing tennis. That’s my main goal … the last six months of last year were pretty good and I’m happy with the way I’m playing at the beginning of this year, and I think it’s a matter of time,” he said.
“I cannot say this year I’ll be top 10, but if it’s this year or next year, I’ll try my best.”