Commentary

Early-morning service Down Under

Time is of no essence Down Under. Jelena Jankovic's loss, Roger Federer's escape and a hometown hero's theatrics kept the Aussie crowd awake until the early hours.

Updated: January 25, 2009, 4:56 PM ET
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Welcome back to the Australian Open All Hours. Love it or hate it, it's fast becoming an annual tradition.

In 2008, the tournament set a record for the latest finish at a Grand Slam, with the first Saturday's action continuing until 4:34 a.m. Sunday. A 4½-hour battle involving Roger Federer had set the whole schedule back, and Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis rode their five-set roller coaster 'til the early hours of the morning.

One year later, an eerily similar story was unfolding at Melbourne Park on Saturday. Roger Federer went five sets. There was a dramatic Australian victory for the crowds to cheer. And once again, Baghdatis was left holding the loser's purse at the end of a very long day.

The genial Cypriot is getting sick of being the tournament's late-night mascot.

"It's a pain in the ass," Baghdatis said. "But it's something all the players have to do. It's part of the job, so there's nothing to say about it."

On Friday, Baghdatis' third-round match went until 1:14 a.m. Saturday. He began his match against defending champion Novak Djokovic on Sunday night during the first week of the tournament.

By time he went down 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-7 (5), 6-2, it was almost 2:30 a.m. Monday morning and the tournament was into its second week.

[+] EnlargeJelena Jankovic
Mark Metcalfe/Getty ImagesJelena Jankovic's plight in Grand Slam play continued after a perplexing display versus Marion Bartoli.
That was the only bright spot of the night for Baghdatis. "My objective was to make the second week, and I made it by a bit, three hours," he said, showing he was capable of cracking a joke despite the loss and the late hour.

Then again, he's growing used to this sort of thing. Baghdatis finished his third-round Aussie Open match against Marat Safin last year at 12:25 a.m. before his famous 4:34 a.m. finish against Hewitt.

Although Sunday's contest against Djokovic didn't run quite as late, the quality of play was far higher. Even deep into the fourth set -- with Baghdatis' leg bleeding slightly and Djokovic having trouble with blisters -- the two exchanged rapid-fire baseline rallies that frequently were more than a dozen strokes long.

A dwindling but sizable crowd remained, led by Baghdatis' band of chanting Greek supporters. There was a warm exchange at the net between the two players afterward, and Djokovic told the Greek fans, "I never expected something like this in my life, that my opponent's crowd is cheering my name. So thank you very much, guys."

The day of drama had begun more than 14 hours earlier with a 6-1, 6-4 upset of world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic by in-form Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli.

Jankovic likely will lose the No. 1 ranking after this tournament. But she'll retain her distinction of being the only top-ranked player without a Grand Slam title for at least a few more months.

"When I'm on the top of my game, it's very hard to beat me because you really have to kind of spill blood if you want to win the match," Jankovic said afterward. "But at the moment, I'm not there yet."

It looked as if the French destruction of the top half of the women's draw would continue when talented teen Alize Cornet found herself up two breaks in the third set against No. 3 Dinara Safina.

But emotion got the better of the 19-year-old, and Safina overcame two match points to advance 6-2, 2-6, 7-5. That match was followed by Roger Federer's comeback from two sets down against the dangerous Tomas Berdych, 4-6, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.

Safina and Federer had wildly contrasting reactions to their narrow escapes.

[+] EnlargeDinara Safina
GREG WOOD/Getty ImagesDespite an error-laced match, Dinara Safina fended off two match points to advance to the Australian Open quarterfinals.
Safina, the younger sister of the mercurial Marat Safin, gave herself a verbal flogging that may have even topped her brother's most self-critical moments. "The problem is that I'm doubting because I'm not playing the game I used to play," she said. "Somebody [should] just smack me so hard in my head that something shakes finally and I put the cables together."

Federer gave himself a pass, pointing to Berdych's fine play in the first two sets. "Seemed like every corner he wanted to hit, he got it. He was playing excellent," the Swiss said. "To kind of weather the storm against him, it's not easy to do. Once I got serving and moving and playing better, I was able to turn it around. So that was nice."

As far as the locals were concerned, the biggest match of the day had yet to come: reborn Aussie Jelena Dokic taking on Alisa Kleybanova, who had upset French Open champ Ana Ivanovic in the third round. The contest lived up to all the hopes, as did the result -- Dokic defeated Kleybanova 7-5, 5-7, 8-6 to reach the quarterfinals and continue her stunning run.

The former No. 5 is trying to make her way back after personal problems derailed her career a few years ago. She reached the tournament after winning Tennis Australia's wild-card playoff event in December and will return to the top 100 after next week.

The drama reached its peak when Dokic rolled her ankle at 5-6 in the third set, but it only seemed to focus her efforts, as she won the last eight points in a row. Both Dokic and the crowd erupted after her final backhand zipped down the line for a winner.

While a captivated nation watched, Djokovic and Baghdatis were less than thrilled as their match ticked past three hours.

"In the locker room, we were cheering that the match finishes a bit earlier, but it didn't," Djokovic said. "It was all in a good way."

As a competitor, he wasn't thrilled about the early-morning finish. "I don't think that this really benefits a lot of people that we played that late. Hopefully in the future we can make some compromise," he said.

Still, Djokovic couldn't help enjoying the novelty of the experience. "You have this unique excitement when you play the night matches. It's really fun. You know, you make history by going to 2 o'clock, 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock in the morning."

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.