Monday, August 11, 2014

Baghdatis keeps streaks alive in Aptos Challenger

No. 2 seed Marcos Baghdatis, left, beat No. 1 Mikhail Kukushkin
 7-6 (7), 6-4 to win the Aptos Challenger. Photo by Paul Bauman
    APTOS, Calif. -- Two streaks continued on Sunday in the final of the $100,000 Comerica Bank Challenger.
   Marcos Baghdatis won his 10th straight match for his second Challenger title in two weeks, and no top seed has won the Aptos crown in the tournament's 27-year history.
   For the first time, though, the No. 1 and 2 seeds met in the final as Baghdatis topped Mikhail Kukushkin 7-6 (7), 6-4 at the Seascape Sports Club. Kukushkin had a set point in the first-set tiebreaker.
   After Baghdatis converted his fourth match point, he jubilantly held up 10 fingers in the direction of his new coach, Antonio van Grichen, in the stands. Baghdatis then dropped to his knees and kissed the court.
   "It was an important title for me," explained Baghdatis, who triumphed in Vancouver last week and became the first No. 2 seed to win the Aptos title. "It's been a long run the last two or three years. I had some injuries, (I wasn't) very consistent, and winning last week and this week -- 10 matches in a row -- is a good sign."
Baghdatis won his 10th straight match for his second title
in two weeks. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Tennis fans might remember Baghdatis. He burst onto the scene in 2006 as a swashbuckling 20-year-old from Cyprus, reaching the Australian Open final against Roger Federer. Baghdatis led by a set and a break before falling in four sets.
   Baghdatis followed with appearances in the Wimbledon semifinals that year, vaulting him to a career-high No. 8 in the world, and quarterfinals in 2007. He became the only player in 2010 to beat Federer and Rafael Nadal while they were No. 1.
   But Baghdatis has had few highlights since then. With the Aptos title, he returned to the top 100 for the first time in eight months at No. 82.
   "I think I'm playing much better tennis now than I was (in 2006)," said Baghdatis. "It's just that the game changed so much. The courts are much slower, and opponents are bigger -- somehow. They're very tall. If you see the top 10 players in the last 10 years, they're all over 185 (centimeters, or 6-foot-1). The balls are heavier. It's just finding a way to adapt my game and finding a way to be better and going back where I want to go."
   Translation: For all his ball-striking ability, the 6-foot (1.82-meter) Baghdatis is getting overpowered on the ATP Tour, the major leagues of tennis. His goal at age 29?
   "I'm trying to be a better player and person than yesterday," he said.
Kukushkin had a set point in the
first set. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Kukushkin, meanwhile, was ranked high enough at No. 55 to play in this week's Masters 1000 tournament, the highest level in men's tennis besides the Grand Slams, in Toronto. There was just one problem. The 26-year-old Russia native, who plays for Kazakhstan, didn't have a visa for Canada.
   "This was the only chance for me to play this week," explained Kukushkin, who rose four places in the rankings to approach his career high of No. 48 three weeks ago.
   Both the swarthy Baghdatis, who plays with his hair in a bun and a scarf tied around his head, and the 6-foot (1.83-meter) Kukushkin rely on punishing serves and forehands. Kukushkin battled Baghdatis evenly for most of the match in their first meeting but played poorly late in the tiebreaker and at 1-1 in the second set, when he suffered the only service break of the match. That was the difference.
   Kukushkin, who reached the fourth round of the 2012 Australian Open, blew a golden opportunity when he had a set point on Baghdatis' second serve at 5-6 in the tiebreaker. But Kukushkin let Baghdatis off the hook by sailing his return of serve long.
   After Kukushkin saved a set point for 7-7, he hit an easy forehand approach wide and drilled a backhand into the bottom of the net to drop the set.
   Kukushkin cracked again while serving at 1-1 in the second set. From 15-15, he netted an inside-out forehand drop shot, sprayed a forehand down the line wide and double-faulted to lose the game.
   Kukushkin fought valiantly in the final game, saving three match points with a forehand passing shot down the line, a topspin lob and a backhand return-of-serve passing shot down the line. He even earned a break point, but Baghdatis responded with a service winner.
  Baghdatis gained his fourth match point when Kukushkin netted a forehand. Baghdatis hit a kick second serve to Kukushkin's backhand, and the return went wide to end it.
   "The key was to stay mentally strong," said Baghdatis, who also won the Nottingham Challenger on grass in June. "It was my 10th match in a short period of time, but  I fought hard for every point and never gave up."
   Kukushkin said of his critical errors: "There's some pressure from the opponent. You play a good player, you better do something special on the important points."
   Baghdatis earned $14,400 and Kukushkin $8,480. Both will play in the main draw of the U.S. Open, which begins on Aug. 25. Baghdatis lost to Andre Agassi 7-5 in the fifth set in the second round of the 2006 U.S. Open, the American's last career win. 
   Baghdatis -- who has battled shoulder, back and wrist injuries -- said he's feeling better.
Wild cards Ruben Bemelmans and Laurynas Grigelis won
won the doubles title. Photo by Paul Bauman
   "It's not the same level as playing big guys and stronger guys," Baghdatis cautioned. "But I'm feeling much better than three or four weeks ago, and I'm much more confident. It was a great run.
   "I cannot say I'm 100 percent because it's just a Challenger. When I win the U.S. Open, I'll tell you I played 100 percent my best tennis."
   In the doubles final, wild cards Ruben Bemelmans of Belgium and Laurynas Grigelis of Lithuania edged fourth-seeded Purav Raja and Sanam Singh of India 6-3, 4-6 [11-9]. Bemelmans and Grigelis, the 2011 singles champion in Aptos, trailed 5-0 in the match tiebreaker.  
   The Comerica Bank tournament is the longest-running men's Challenger in the United States.
   Past Comerica singles champions include International Tennis Hall of Famer Patrick Rafter (1993) and two-time Grand Slam singles champion Andy Murray (2005). Among the doubles winners are 15-time Grand Slam men's doubles titlists Bob and Mike Bryan (1998 and 2000).

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