WASHINGTON – David Nalbandian is making quite a comeback.
Playing in his first tournament since April, the 117th-ranked Nalbandian overwhelmed No. 13 Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-2 at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic on Saturday night to reach his first ATP final in 1½ years.
"I've been playing well all week," Nalbandian said.
He lost his serve in the semifinal's first game, getting broken when he dumped a forehand into the net. But he immediately broke right back when Cilic double-faulted, starting a stretch in which Nalbandian won nine of 10 games, including seven in a row, while dominating from the baseline.
On point after point, Nalbandian would cover the court well enough to extend a rally until Cilic would make a mistake. There were moments when Cilic appeared to be bothered by his right leg, and he double-faulted to hand over a match point, then ended the match putting a backhand into the net.
It was the latest in a string of impressive performances at the hard-court tournament by the unseeded Nalbandian, whose victory over the No. 4-seeded Cilic followed wins against No. 7-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka and No. 13-seeded Gilles Simon.
Facing a break point while already trailing 4-3 in the second set, the 25th-ranked Baghdatis turned his ankle when he tried to change directions for a ball that wound up landing out. He crumpled to the court and clutched at his suddenly painful left ankle, worrying he might have to quit.
"I was scared," Baghdatis would say later.
He looked up and saw Malisse trotting over, toting a plastic bag filled with ice. Soon enough, Baghdatis got that twisted ankle taped by a trainer, then resumed hitting big serves and tracking down most of Malisse's shots.
"That's typical sportsmanship from Xavier," Baghdatis said about the offer of ice. "I would do the same thing, and I think it's nice. But some guys don't. ... It doesn't happen every day."
He said the injury was "a bit of a strain, but I hope it will be fine" for Sunday's championship match.
With early losses by No. 2-seeded Andy Roddick, No. 5-seeded John Isner and the six other Americans entered, this is the first time in the 42-year history of the Washington tournament that no U.S. player reached the quarterfinals.
Instead, this event turned into a showcase for players who briefly had success in the past, were waylaid by injuries, and now are working their way back — a description that applies to both Argentina's Nalbandian and Cyprus' Baghdatis.
Nalbandian was the 2002 Wimbledon runner-up, made it to the semifinals four other times at Grand Slam tournaments, and was ranked No. 3. But he missed nine months, starting in May 2009, because of hip surgery and then has been sidelined since April because of a left hamstring injury.
"Too many weeks ... without hitting a ball and without matches," Nalbandian said, "but I know that if I feel motivated, I know I can play good."
Nalbandian sat out the past six major championships, but the way he's hitting the ball right now means he could be someone to watch at the U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 30.
Baghdatis, meanwhile, has been ranked in the top 10 and played in the Australian Open final and Wimbledon semifinals in 2006, but a stress fracture in his right wrist two years later led him to fall out of the top 100. He entered low-tier Challenger tournaments to lift his ranking; indeed, his only two previous matches against Malisse were victories in finals on that circuit in 2009.
"That's what you have to do, especially when you're a guy from Cyprus," said Baghdatis, who doesn't have a sponsor and wears his country's flag on the chest of his shirts. "You don't have a lot of wild cards, a lot of tournaments at home. It's not easy."
Things are going well lately, though. Saturday's victory was Baghdatis' 23rd on a hard court this year, the third-most on tour. He's seeking his second title of 2010, after winning at Sydney in January.
Nalbandian's last title — and last final — came at Sydney in January 2009.
"When you spend a lot of time outside the court, you miss the tennis, you miss the adrenaline you get every time you go on court," Nalbandian said. "I'm trying to enjoy it every time that I go out. I think I have three or four more years playing at the best level."