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Giant killer Baghdatis up against king Roger

Federer looks to win his seventh Grand Slam stopping Marcos Baghdatis' dream run at Melbourne Park.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2006 12:27 IST

Marcos Baghdatis doesn't mind outlining his strengths on the tennis court.

"I'm really quick on the feet," the Australian Open men's finalist said on Saturday. "I move very well. I have a great eye. I see the ball very fast. I can adapt to any players, any style of players."

He'll need all of those and more when he takes on Roger Federer, who will bring a few strengths of his own to Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night as he attempts to win his seventh Grand Slam singles title.

The 20-year-old Baghdatis is in his first Grand Slam final, a guy who didn't quite come out of nowhere in this tournament, but close. Ranked 54th before the tournament began, he had lost in the first round three weeks ago at Doha, Qatar— to Federer. Baghdatis, a Greek Cypriot, moved on to Auckland, New Zealand, where he lost again in the first round, this time to Jarkko Nieminen of Finland.

Things were so bad after the Nieminen match that Baghdatis and his coach, Guillaume Payre, sat in their hotel room and made an audacious pact.

"I told him if I win the Australian Open, I'll stop tennis," Baghdatis said, smiling. "He told me if I win it, he'll stop working.

"So that's funny. Here I am. I am in the final, so it's great. We'll see if we stop working after Sunday."

Back home in Cyprus, thousands have stopped working to watch his matches and schools have set aside studies when he plays. The president has sent him greetings. In Melbourne, the city's large Greek population has adopted him as their own.

With boisterous fans waving large Greek flags, Federer may find himself as the "away" player, but that doesn't concern him. "The Australians are very, very fair when it comes to sportsmanship," Federer said. "They love the sport here, so I expect a fair match."

Just how close it is depends on whether Baghdatis can maintain his lofty level of play that has seen him upset four players ranked ahead of him, including No. 2 Andy Roddick in the fourth round. Moments after Baghdatis outlined his strengthson Saturday, he went on to say why Federer is the No. 1 player in the world. "He plays really well on important points, amazing," said Baghdatis. "Every time he has an important point, he just serves so well. He reads the game well, tactically. He's fast. He has everything."

Federer doesn't pay much attention to hype thrown his way. And he realizes Baghdatis is on a hot streak and needs to be taken seriously.

"I think we are all surprised he got so far," said Federer. "He proved us all wrong. He beat quality players and he deserves to be in the final."

Federer is aiming for his third consecutive major after winning at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2005. He won the Australian title in 2004 and was upset in the semis last year— after having match points— by eventual champion Marat Safin.

Safin did not return this year due to a knee injury, and Rafael Nadal and Andre Agassi also pulled out. Lleyton Hewitt lost in the second round.

Federer doesn't need any such help in Grand Slams. He's won six of the last 10 majors and reached the semifinals in two others. Those figures could be intimidating for a top 10 player in a final against Federer, let alone one ranked in the 50s. If he wins, Baghdatis will move up to No. 16 in the rankings. A loss will lift him to No. 26. Federer will remain at No. 1, a position he's held since February, 2004, regardless of the outcome. Having come this far, Baghdatis gives himself every chance of victory over Federer, the overwhelming favorite.

"I don't think he's worried, his seventh Grand Slam final, he's won (all) six of them," said Baghdatis, whose French model girlfriend Camille Neviere, will watch again from the player boxes on Sunday.

"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."

First Published: Jan 28, 2006 12:27 IST