But that would be the crowd-pleaser, on many levels: because of the popularity players, their shot-making ability, and what became a dramatic tussle for victory.
Stan Wawrinka was the second seed and world No4, but in two previous visits, the most recent a remarkable eight years ago, he had not won a match on these slick, fast courts. He had even faced match points in his opener this week against Sergiy Stakhovsky before winning his first Dubai match, 7-5 in the third.
Since winning in the first weeks of 2016 in Chennai, his form had not been up to his Grand Slam winning best, either: He lost in the fourth round at the Australian Open and in the second round of Marseille, but having adjusted to the special Dubai conditions, he was starting to look more confident—and had the bonus of a truncated semi-final when Nick Kyrgios retired just three games into the second set.
Baghdatis, in contrast, was kept on court for over two hours in a pulsating semi-final against Feliciano Lopez. The unseeded Baghdatis, who had reached only his second final since 2011—and has not won a title in six years—was certainly the more unexpected finalist.
Though currently ranked 57, the Cypriot has been a top-10 player, and was showing signs of a return to the form and fitness that saw him surge to the Australian Open final a decade ago. In a tough Dubai draw, he beat No5 seed Viktor Troicki in the first round and then Vasek Pospisil in a scant 66 minutes. He sailed through one of the form men of the season, Roberto Bautista Agut, 7-5, 6-0, in the quarters, and fought back from a set down against Lopez. In short, it was hard to believe he had contemplated retirement after injury and loss confidence. He explained:
“I have definitely thought of retiring. That’s where my wife [former WTA player Karolina Sprem] was there and was very strong, made me take the right decisions. My agent, my parents, my team around me, we saw the light at the end of the tunnel.”
He had set the target of a top-30 place this season, and should he win Dubai’s ATP500, he could achieve that next week.
His task was formidable, though. Wawrinka has a habit of rising to the occasion: a look at his sensational progress to the French Open title via the top two men in the world stands testament to that. He had not lost a final in three years—while Baghdatis had not won one at final in six. Add into the mix that Wawrinka had won all five of their previous encounters, and Baghdatis was the underdog. Not that it showed in his dogged fight through two compelling sets.
Baghdatis went on the attack straight away, showing his intention to take command, and he did indeed score the first break when Wawrinka sent a forehand long in the fifth game.
But the Cypriot’s serve has been a concern all week: Countless times he had struggled with his ball toss and double faulted, and now he opened the sixth game with the first of seven double faults, and was broken to love.
He double faulted to bring up 0-40 in the ninth game, too, and although he worked back to deuce, Wawrinka continued to pile on the pressure through several patient backhand exchanges, and Baghdatis eventually complied with his sixth double fault to concede the set, 6-4.
The second set, though, was close throughout its entire 70 minutes. Baghdatis upped his serving percentage, Wawrinka drew gasps for repeated backhand winners, but neither could work a break point all the way to a tie-break.
There, Baghdatis looked out of it in the early goings: 3-0 down after one more blistering backhand winner from the Swiss. The scoreline became 4-1, then 5-3, but Baghdatis edged three straight points to bring up set point, 6-5.
It became impossible to separate the two: Wawrinka saved five set points while Baghdatis saved three match points, all the way to 13-13, and sure enough, it was a superb cross-court backhand at an acute angle that beat Baghdatis for one final match point, and the Swiss served it out, 7-6(13).
Wawrinka afterwards credited his opponent with creating a lively final: “It was a really tough final, it’s always a tough match against Marcos, I had to fight until the end. It was a crazy tiebreak. It was my best match of the week.
“I really enjoyed the atmosphere, it was a great level. I was talking to Marcos last night, he’s a great friend, and I told him that every time he steps on the court he has a lot of fans. He’s a great player, so congratulations to you and your team, I hope you keep playing at this level all year.”
He added, with a smile: “I can’t thank my team, I’m alone here, so thanks to all the crowd.”
It may have been eight years since Wawrinka was last in Dubai, but it would be remarkable if he did not return a little sooner next time around, and perhaps next time with his team, too.
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly