He Really Has the Island Hopping

Times Staff Writer

He was hailed by one newspaper in his home country as "The 13th God" for his captivating exploits.

Roger Federer, right?

Win six Grand Slam titles, get the chance to play for a seventh at the Australian Open, and why not make a little room for one more spot on Mount Olympus?

Only this newspaper, Alithia, was in Cyprus, hailing the accomplishments of 20-year-old Marcos Baghdatis, who, on Sunday, will be playing in his first Grand Slam final, facing the top-seeded Federer. Though the word "unprecedented" is used often in sports, in this case it actually applies.

Previously, the best performance by a Cypriot at a Grand Slam was Baghdatis' run to the fourth round at last year's Australian Open. He lost to Federer.

Federer made reference to that just minutes after he had left Nicolas Kiefer of Germany spinning in his wake in their semifinal, taking 12 of the last 14 games to win, 6-3, 5-7, 6-0, 6-2, in 2 hours 40 minutes. It was almost as though Federer let Kiefer draft off him for two sets and then tired of it, sped away and moved on to Baghdatis.

"Thank God I've played him three times, so that sort of relaxes me a little bit," Federer said in his on-court interview.

"I was also the No. 1 junior in 1998 ... and it took me about the same time to get up in the rankings. I was stuck around 120, around 13 for a while, before I made the jump. He made the finals much earlier in a Grand Slam, so that's something."

Federer, who is 6-0 in Grand Slam finals and 3-0 against Baghdatis, was pushed to five sets once on his way to the final, by Tommy Haas of Germany in the fourth round, and needed four against Nikolay Davydenko of Russia (including two tiebreakers) and Kiefer.

His presence in finals is almost expected. At the other end is Baghdatis, who is ranked 54th, and has taken firm hold of the event by upsetting second-seeded Andy Roddick in four sets, No. 7 Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia in five and No. 4 David Nalbandian of Argentina in five, rallying from a two-set deficit.

The way he has burst on the scene is similar to what Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil did when he appeared at the French Open in 1997. Here, the chanting blue-and-white-clad Greek fans, and Cypriots, could give the Brazilians a competitive run.

Not only did Kuerten reach the final at Roland Garros, he won it. The odds facing Baghdatis are considerably stiffer, but the mental strength the youngster has shown here was molded years ago when he was sent off to a tennis academy at 13.

"It was the worst day, one of the worst days of my life," he said in a pre-final interview at Melbourne Park today. "I was just crying all the way, and all the day I was crying with my father and just the only thing I wanted to do is go back and see my family, see my friends. But ... I got through it. I felt lonely, felt bad. ... I just woke up one day and I said, 'OK, I have no choice. Stop crying, stop wandering around. You have no choice and you can do it. A lot of people believe in you.' And that's what I did."

Although this is the biggest moment of his tennis life, Baghdatis has kept it in perspective, unleashing his infectious smile when asked what about him should concern Federer.

"He should be worried about me? I don't think he's worried," Baghdatis said. "His seventh [Slam] final, he won six of them. But I think it will be a great match. I'll fight for it. I think he will fight for it. May the best win."

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