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Then There Were Two: Baghdatis and Nalbandian Progress to The Final in Washington

At the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, the first semifinal showcased Marcos Baghdatis, the eighth seed, against Xavier Malisse.  Baghdatis defeated Malisse 6-2,7-6 to earn his initial spot in the final of a tournament States side.  Later, David Nalbandian booked his maiden berth in a final on U.S. soil by thumping fourth seed Marin Cilic 6-2,6-2.

Although this was their first meeting on the ATP tour, Malisse and Baghdatis faced off twice in the finals at the challenger level with Baghdatis prevailing both times.  From the difficult hold that Baghdatis had his primary game, Malisse gave the impression that he was going to reverse the former results.  However, with Malisse unable to make the volley off a dipping forehand,  Baghdatis gained double break point.  As Malisse’s forehand went out of bounds, Baghdatis nudged ahead 2-1.  By surprising Baghdatis with a sliced backhand down the line and forcing an error, Malisse attained break point.  But, with Malisse misjudging the second serve return, Baghdatis eventually consolidated for 3-1.  By inciting a few unforced errors from Malisse, Baghdatis captured a second break and later shut down the set with a love game.

The first two games of the second set, Baghdatis had two break points; Malisse handled the pressure to stay in front 2-1.  Following a couple of easy holds, Malisse connected on a forehand down the line winner for break point.  But, by sending a backhand outside the field of play, Malisse wasted that opportunity.  As Baghdatis shifted his movement in an attempt to track down the ball, he twisted his left ankle slightly.

With Baghdatis on the ground, play was interrupted and the trainer dispatched. Genuinely concerned for his opponent, Malisse quickly crossed the net and brought Baghdatis a bag of ice to apply.  After the ankle was attended to, play resumed and Baghdatis held for 4 all.  Subsequently, Malisse rebounded from love 30 to keep his nose in front 5-4.  Later, following a loose forehand by Malisse, Baghdatis connected on a forehand crosscourt pass for break point.  With another mistake by Malisse, Baghdatis claimed a 6-5 lead.  Yet, serving for the match, Baghdatis was bitten by the error bug.  Therefore, the set moved on to a tiebreaker.  At that stage, Baghdatis justified his 11-3 tiebreaker record.  In baiting Malisse into two miscues, the Cypriot raced to a 5-1 advantage.  Then, on his fourth match point, Baghdatis succeeded to punctuate the match.

In reference to his noble act, Malisse cited in the post match briefing:  “I know he has been injured for a while . . .you don’t want [the ankle to] be more inflamed. . . You don’t want to win a match in that way”.

MiamiTennisNews asked:
Q.  You got the equalizer in the second set, what went wrong in the tiebreaker?
Malisse:  At 3-1, I hit a good forehand but it clipped the tape.  He served well the whole tiebreaker . . . I kept [going] for my shots . .  At 6-4, it’s a little different because he feels he has to win the point because it’s on his serve . . . I made a couple of mistakes, but if you are going to hit your shot, you are going to miss a couple.  Too bad, it’s in a tiebreaker.

Q.  Despite the result today, it’s been a good week for you.  What are the positives you take away?
Malisse:  I’ve played good matches, so I can’t really complain . . . I gave it my all and beat a lot of good players in the top 20.  I lost today, but I fought hard . . . You can’t win everything . . . But the positive is that my ranking [will go] up to almost 50 . . . The pressure is off now, I can play freely.   My confidence is really high  . . I’m a bit tired, but we will see how Toronto goes after some days of rest.

In assessing his performance, Baghdatis surmised that the key to his victory was “playing smart” and coming up with “the perfect game” plan.  Essentially, Baghdatis said:  “I played the right point at the right time . . .not opening the court on his forehand and not giving him any angles”.  On the ankle, Baghdatis’ comment was “I twisted it a bit . . . I feel ok now and hope that it won’t be bad tomorrow”.

In the second semifinal, Nalbadian clashed with Cilic.  The last time these two tangoed, it was in the quarterfinals of the Davis Cup in 2006 and Nalbandian was the victor.  Needless to say, with 21 year old Cilic now ranked 13th, Nalbadian was facing a different player.

In the first game, Cilic took advantage of multiple errors by Nalbadian and broke.  However, Nalbandian also pressured the Croatian into miscues to promptly level the set at 1 all.  Nalbandian then held at love for 2-1.  After getting to double break point with a backhand down the line winner, Cilic failed to capitalize on Nalbandian’s second serves.  Thus, the Argentine inched ahead 3-2.  With Cilic netting a forehand, Nalbandian earned his third break point of the sixth game.  Nalbandian converted when Cilic made his third forehand error in that game.  In his three previous matches, Cilic had only been broken twice, dismissing 12 of 14 break points.  After consolidating with a love game for 5-2, Nalbandian bagged another break to polish the first set in just 36 minutes.

After Nalbandian had an easy hold to begin the second set, aided by Cilic’s miscues and a forehand winner, the Argentine arrived at double break point.  With a forehand winner, Nalbandian pocketed the game for 2-0, then readily captured the subsequent game for 3-0.  Nalbandian continued to cruise on serve while putting Cilic on his heels.  But, with Nalbandian serving at 4-2, Cilic battled back behind 40-0 and pushed Nalbandian into misfiring a backhand for a break point.  Once again, Cilic’s poor returns permitted Nalbandian to guard serve and extend his lead to 5-2.  Serving to prolong the match, Cilic double faulted to donate double break/match point to his opponent.  On a deep return, Cilic dumped the backhand into the net.  Consequently, Nalbandian claimed the match and booked his first spot in a final since his last title in Sydney in 2009.

MiamiTennisNews commented the following:
Q. Cilic had a lot of trouble catching up with the forehand when stretched out wide.  Was this a weakness in his game that your coach and you deduced that you could exploit?
Nalbandian:  Any time the ball is far from the body, it will be tough [regardless] of the forehand or the backhand.  I tried to keep him on the move.  He’s very tall . . .so I [wanted] to keep him on the [run].

From Cilic’s perspective, MiamiTennisNews inquired:
Q.  You had been playing so well.  Yesterday, your forehand wing was particularly strong.  Today, that shot was frequently off, what was the reason?
Cilic:  Today, the big difference was the serve.  Yesterday, I was serving much better, while today I was not hitting my spots . . .Also, he did not miss many returns, especially from the backhand side.  He was really consistent which put a lot of pressure on me.  So, I did not have as much time as yesterday.  That’s the reason I could not take control of the points and couldn’t get any free points.

Cilic emphasized that Nalbandian was simply unbeatable tonight.  Therefore, it was useless to “blame myself on too many things. I have to credit him because he played really good tennis”.

Despite the outcome, Cilic was satisfied with his overall performance this week.  The Croatian expressed that these results can only help him as he looks to better his 2009 quarterfinal showing at the U.S Open.

Although Baghdatis has a 3-1 record against Nalbandian, the last time they met was at Wimbledon in 2007.  Since then, both have had injuries to contend with.  Nalbandian is feeling fit and expressed after his semifinal win “when I play this well, it’s tough for anybody.  It doesn’t matter who is on the other side”.  In spite of Baghdatis’ winning mark, Nalbandian hinted that his opponent will have his work cut out for him in tomorrow’s final.

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