DUBAI // If tennis titles were awarded for courage, Novak Djokovic would have the 17th of his career without needing to play tonight's final of the Dubai Championship against Russia's Mikhail Youzhny. The tenacious Serbian has steadfastly refused to bow out of the Aviation Club reckoning when the odds have been stacked against him all week.
Sluggish but safe in his opening round against Spain's Guillermo Garcia Lopez, he was on the back foot for much of his next assignment against compatriot Viktor Troicki before somehow finding a winning formula. Then in a remarkable quarter-final he was on the ropes against an inspired Croatian Ivan Ljubicic only to find his own knockout punch which he delivered in clinical fashion by romping through a deciding set 6-0.
He had to work even harder last night to secure a 6-7 (2-7), 6-3, 6-4 victory against a rejuvenated Marcos Baghdatis, the charismatic Cypriot who has a worldwide fan club. "I've been fortunate now three times in a row," said Djokovic after his match against a player who won the Sydney International last month. "I'm still not playing well and the crowd could see how frustrated I was. I faced far too many break balls and that makes things so difficult when you are playing somebody as talented as Marcos.
"But I'm still here. I'm in the final so let's see what happens." The unseeded Baghdatis, a former Australian Open finalist, came up with break points in abundance against a vulnerable Djokovic serve but was able to convert only three out of 16 and ultimately paid a heavy price. Djokovic, the last of the big names to survive this ill-fated event, simply refused to join the exodus and after nearly three hours of compellingly fluctuating warfare he emerged from his third successive marathon to get to within one match of retaining a title for the first time in his career.
The world No 2 has always found a way past Baghdatis, no matter how tight their encounters have been. He had beaten Baghdatis in all three of their previous meetings, notably a wonderful quarter-final at Wimbledon in 2007 - a match that began with three tie-breaks and was settled in the 12th game of the fifth set. That memorable match took so much out of the young Serb that he was forced to retire midway through the ensuing quarter-final against Rafael Nadal.
Let us hope that he still has enough in his energy banks to give this tournament a final to savour.He will need every moment of his 21 hours of recovery time after this latest marathon battle. The first set, which contained several rallies of 20 strokes or more, lasted 72 minutes with both players having chances to win it without recourse to the tie-break which went emphatically in favour of the Cypriot.
Twice Djokovic went a service break ahead, only to surrender the advantage immediately on both occasions - lapses which eventually cost him the set. The same thing happened in the second set when Baghdatis broke first only to hand back the initiative to his opponent by playing a loose service game immediately after. That proved to be the turning point because a further break of the Baghdatis serve in the eighth game took them into a final set.
After both players had added to the drama by calling for a change of footwear in full flow, Djokovic eventually took charge. A solitary break for 2-1 was sufficient to give the Serbian what proved a decisive advantage which he clung grimly on to until the hitting the clinching deep serve which his exhausted opponent was unable to return. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org