The Australian Open 2008 has – so far at least – been dominated by two talking points. A much publicized (but hardly revolutionary) surface change from Rebound Ace to Plexicushion, and an ever-present corruption hangover that is still causing the sport a few headaches. The matches themselves have offered nothing too spectacular with Andy Murray’s first round loss to the ever improving Jo Wilfred Tsonga proving to be the highest profile surprise of the tournament.
Some scheduled intriguing matches early on in the draw failed to deliver. Lindsay Davenport, despite two recent title wins was far from her fittest against a quicker, seemingly more agile Maria Sharapova and slumped rather disappointingly to a 6-1, 6-3 loss. The much anticipated clash between Roger Federer and Fabrice Santoro also frustrated as the Frenchman’s usual sublime wizardry was never allowed to shine.
However, the tournament has enjoyed it’s first classic match, and it is no surprise as this second round encounter pitched Marat Safin against Marcos Baghdatis. It was a salivating prospect between two much loved figures down under. Safin, of course was the champion in 2005 (with that semi final win over Federer) and is a player who on his day really is capable of beating anyone. He could have dominated the game for many years (Safin of course won the U.S Open in 2000 and was world number one briefly in November of the same year) but his much documented love of life outside the sport and a notorious temper led to an inconsistent career, not to mention a few injuries. His opponent, Marcos Baghdatis is one of the tours most colourful and popular characters. Unlike fellow showman, Novak Djokovic, Baghdatis possesses a warm vibrancy that makes him immediately endearing and infinitely more charming than the impersonating, torso bearing Serb. It was in 2006 of course that Baghdatis’ never say die attitude and sense of fun on the court that earned him a place in the Australian Open final and in the hearts of millions of fans worldwide.
It was the Cypriot Baghdatis who started Thursday’s night match as the slight favourite, and this was justified after the number 15 seed proceeded to take the first two close sets 6-4, 6-4 with just one break of serve in each. Safin then began to show us a glimpse of the majesty which earned him the title three years ago. Scintillating ground strokes and a measured yet brutal power game left Baghdatis with no answer. Safin, who has never won a match from two sets to love down seemed to have the ascendancy as they entered the fifth set but soon looked groggy and seemingly mentally exhausted. Errors crept back into the increasingly fuming former champion and as the rackets were once again flung and slammed to the floor, it was Baghdatis who rediscovered his consistency and his underrated first serve to wrap up the match 6-4,6-4,2-6,3-6,6-2 in three and a quarter hours.
Lleyton looms next.