Can it really be eight years since Marcos Baghdatis took the Australian Open by storm and, cheered on by every Greek in Melbourne (and there are a lot of them in this town), made his way to the final? Eight years? It cannot be.
As Baghdatis has discovered to his cost since that magical two weeks in 2006, living up to your past is never easy. The loveable Baggy has done his best every year but it has been getting progressively harder – his best result in the intervening years is fourth round appearance in 2009 – and on the opening day of this year’s tournament he was undone by Denis Istomin 6-4 7-5 6-4. Melbourne Park sighed; the owners of a well-known Greek hostelry in Lonsdale Street groaned (they had received two weeks of free publicity back in 2006 when the young Mr B admitted that his run to the final had been fuelled almost exclusively by their souvlakis and they look forward his return every January).
Alas, the Baggy of 2014 is now 28 years old, and his ranking has slumped to No.108 in the world. His supporters are still as enthusiastic as ever – and they were in fine voice in Margaret Court Arena on Monday night – and while he tries as hard as he ever did, age and a string of injuries have taken their toll. Baggy is not what he was.
He ran and he fought and he pulled off the occasional stunning winner, but it was not enough. The crowd tried to lift their man but no amount of cheering, clapping and singing can turn back the clock. Istomin, hardly a spring chicken himself at the age of 27, just did everything a little more solidly, a little more patiently and, ultimately, a little bit better than the crowd’s darling. With a handful more winners and a few less errors, the world No.49 from Uzbekistan was edging his way to a second-round appointment with Dmitry Tursunov, and Baghdatis was facing his first-ever opening-round defeat at the Australian Open.
A couple of years ago while he was losing in the second round here to Stanislas Wawrinka, Baggy blew a gasket and managed to smash four rackets in the space of just 25 seconds. So angry was the Cypriot that he did not even bother to take the last two rackets out of their plastic wrapper. Losing hurt. It hurt lots, and Baggy could not bear it. This time around, Baghdatis could not even dredge up that level of fury and, instead, took his beating squarely on the chin. Istomin was just too good on the night, and there was absolutely nothing the former finalist could do about it.
After two hours and 36 minutes, the crowd filed out of the arena, making a note in the diaries to come back this time next year for another bout of Baggy-mania, but they know there cannot be many more. Injuries and ranking permitting, their man will be back, but it will never be like it was all those years ago. No, living up to your own past is never easy.