Baghdatis overcomes bad ankle, beats Malisse in straight sets to reach final at Washington

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Marcos Baghdatis crumpled to the court and clutched at his suddenly painful left ankle, worrying he might have to quit his semifinal match at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic.

"I was scared," Baghdatis would say later.

He looked up and saw his opponent, Xavier 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.

Recovering quickly after tweaking his ankle, the No. 8-seeded Baghdatis finished with 11 aces, was broken only once, and beat Malisse 6-2, 7-6 (4) on Saturday to reach his second ATP final of 2010, his sixth overall — and first in the United States.

"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.

No. 4-seeded Marin Cilic of Croatia was to meet unseeded David Nalbandian of Argentina in the other semifinal Saturday night.

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 Cyprus' Baghdatis and Belgium's Malisse.

Baghdatis 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.

The 25-year-old Baghdatis reunited last month with coach Guillaume Peyre. They first began working together when Baghdatis was a teen, and he credits Peyre with helping him stay focused. One example: Baghdatis is 4-1 in tiebreakers this week.

Malisse, a 30-year-old player who lives in Sarasota, Fla., upset No. 1-seeded Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, Isner in the third round, and No. 12-seeded Julien Benneteau in the second. But unlike Baghdatis, he didn't have a first-round bye, and both men knew Malisse would be more tired in Saturday's 90-degree heat.

Still, it appeared Baghdatis might be the one in trouble. Facing a break point while already trailing 4-3 in the second set, Baghdatis turned his ankle when he tried to change directions for a ball that wound up landing out.

A doctor and trainer came on court, and Baghdatis eventually rose and limped to the sideline, where he took a medical timeout. When action resumed after a five-minute delay, the score was deuce, and Baghdatis held to 4-all by taking the next two points on miscues by Malisse. Instead of testing Baghdatis' ankle by attempting a drop shot, say, Malisse was content to settle in for long rallies from the baseline. The first was a 22-stroke exchange that ended with Malisse sailing a forehand long. The second lasted 12 strokes, capped by Malisse pushing a forehand wide.

"You always think, 'Well, is he OK? Is he going to stop?' But ... I hit a backhand down the line, and he ran to it, so I thought, 'He will be fine,'" said Malisse, a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2002, when he reached the top 20.

His ranking dropped below 350th, though, as recently as 2008, when he had a right wrist injury, and he is currently 62nd.

Malisse plays more of a high-risk game than Baghdatis, and that strategy didn't pay off Saturday.

"He's always there," Malisse said, "and he makes you hit that one extra shot."

After dropping the opening point of the tiebreaker, Baghdatis responded with a pair of aces at 118 and 124 mph en route to a 6-1 lead. After wasting three match points, Baghdatis converted the fourth when Malisse closed a 26-stroke point by putting a running backhand into the net.

Baghdatis again dropped to the court, this time because of joy, not pain.