Ranking returns slowly for Russian Andreev

PARIS -- International crowd favorite Marcos Baghdatis walked off Suzanne Lenglen court Monday to the accompaniment of a warm, yearning chorus that clearly would have liked to see him and his million-watt smile stick around longer than the round of 16.

The applause for his vanquisher, Russia's Igor Andreev, was sustained and respectful, but there was a slightly uncertain undertone to it.

Who is this guy? And where did he get that bullwhip of a right arm?

The 125th-ranked Andreev is the bracket buster of this French Open, but it should be stressed that he's not a true stealth spoiler. Andreev had hit a career-high No. 24 last April before surgery to repair chronically inflamed cartilage in one knee forced him to take most of the rest of 2006 off. His results haven't been spectacular this season, but his first trip to a Grand Slam event quarterfinal isn't a complete shock.

"Mentally, I'm much stronger than before," said Andreev, 23.

Andreev has killed off a few Goliaths with his slingshot forehand, which he can seemingly hit to anywhere on the court from anywhere on the court without telegraphing his intent. In July 2005, he was the last player to beat Rafael Nadal on clay before Nadal went on his 81-match tear that carried over three seasons.

The Russian's inside-out shot in particular seems to leave opponents cross-eyed, as if they'd been beaned in the forehead instead of having watched the ball scatter red dirt in the distance while they were still figuring out which foot to push off. Down the line, Andreev is capable of bending his shot like a David Beckham free kick.

"It's even more powerful than Nadal's," Baghdatis said of Andreev's forehand. "It hurts me more. And you never know where he is going to place the ball. It keeps you moving from one side of the court to the other, and it's never easy."

Andreev lifted his eyebrows in surprise when informed of the compliment. "Well, I appreciate it," he said. "And it works much better on clay courts where the ball bounces higher."

It worked over No. 3 Andy Roddick, hip checked out of the first round by Andreev last week. Perhaps as impressively, Andreev beat Roddick last year in the fourth round at Indian Wells, eliciting a memorable, self-flagellating meet-the-press session from Roddick.

"I'm not the captain of Team Fun right now," Roddick said back then.

Andreev is no barrel of laughs, as the 16th-seeded Baghdatis found out Monday when they played for the first time. Baghdatis had his way in the first set, but after the Russian cracked a sharply angled backhand volley on break point in the first game of the second set, he never looked back, winning eight of the next nine games.

Baghdatis scrambled back to tie the second at 3-all but admitted he lost energy and wasn't able to respond to Andreev's relentless attacking on the cushiony surface at Lenglen.

Wiry and quick, sporting a surfer-dude mane of blond hair mashed under a baseball cap, Andreev gets himself into position so well and so quickly that he has a range of choices as to how, where and with what spin he uncorks his best weapon. He's no slouch on the backhand, either, and mixed in some drop shots just to torture Baghdatis a little more.

Andreev's game is a polycultural blend of Russian and Spanish styles combining power, kick serves and baseline craft. He said nonconformity suits him. He followed fellow Russian Marat Safin to Valencia, Spain, when he was 16 and has worked with the same coach, Jose Altur, ever since.

"There in Russia, they don't see that maybe every person is different," said Andreev. "For every guy, they have to try to find what he wants, what he understands. So they have, like, one plan, so you have to do this. And in Spain, it was a little different."

Andreev said he enjoyed his summer off last season -- his first in seven years -- but got hungry for competition again as the months went on. After losing to Vince Spadea in the first round of the Australian Open in January, Andreev took advantage of Russia's upcoming Davis Cup date with Chile to play some lower-level clay-court tournaments in South America.

The familiar dirt apparently had healing properties. Andreev, who frequently finds a way to raise his level in Davis Cup play, beat Chile's top two players, Fernando Gonzalez and Nicolas Massu, to give Russia a difficult away win.

Next up in Paris is No. 6 Novak Djokovic. They played for the first time a few weeks ago in Estoril, Portugal, where Djokovic prevailed in the first round on the way to winning the championship.

Andreev declined to give much of a preview, but he might take heart from one fact. The sand traps of Roland Garros have traditionally been kind to underdogs. Seven unseeded players have made it to the French Open final in the last 20 years, and two -- Gaston Gaudio of Argentina in 2004 and Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil in 1997 -- have won it all.

"In the very deep fantasies, every player imagines how he can enjoy Sunday on center court and hopefully hold the trophy, the big one," Andreev said. "But I have to go slow."

Fortunately for Andreev, the clay of Roland Garros lends itself to that.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who is covering the French Open for ESPN.com.