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Marcos Baghdatis marches on at Wimbledon June 30, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Tennis Squash.

Marcos Baghdatis marches on at Wimbledon as Cyprus’s unlikely hero

The list of famous Cypriots is not terribly long but in the modern day one name stands out. Since Marcos Baghdatis surprised everyone, including himself, by reaching the final of this year’s Australian Open, Greek interest in the sport has never been higher. Yesterday the 21-year-old needed only three games to reach the third round after his opponent Andrei Pavel retired with back trouble. Already he has gone further than any compatriot has ever done on a tennis court, grass or otherwise.

Strangely, the only Cypriot not getting highly excited is Baghdatis himself. Bizarrely, there may not be another man in these championships less convinced of his own ability or his place in the elite. He may be a grand-slam finalist and a hero in his own land but he currently possesses a fragile self-confidence. “My head is a balloon of doubts,” he confided yesterday, a good title for a celebrity autobiography if ever there was one.

The problem is that Baghdatis still cannot quite believe his exalted profile. Cypriot tennis players are generally as famous as Madagascan bobsleighers and, while the current world No16 moved to France at the age of 14 to develop his game, the frenzy at home and in Melbourne last January has left him confused.

“What happened in Cyprus was amazing. Guys were telling me they’d never seen anything like it. When Roger Federer wins a grand slam title, it’s normal. In the months since I reached the final it has felt really strange. I’m still trying to work out whether I belong at big tournaments like this. My mind is all over the place.”

Such honesty is as refreshing as it is unusual. It is a bit like Tracey Emin conceding her infamous unmade bed had nothing to do with art. But Baghdatis, seeded 18th despite never winning a match at Wimbledon prior to this year, is adamant. “I’m still young and I need more experience. It’s going to take time. There are big expectations now but I want to play my way and enjoy it.” He even confessed to a pre-match premonition he would lose yesterday, having twice required medical treatment during his marathon five-setter against Britain’s Alan Mackin the day before. “I needed an ambulance yesterday and I still felt awful when the match started. I was very tired.”

What a stroke of luck, therefore, that Pavel, who beat Baghdatis in straight sets on grass at Halle recently, was in an even worse state. The Romanian won only four points out of a possible 19 before his back forced him to give up the unequal struggle. “I suppose I made my own luck by winning yesterday,” shrugged Baghdatis, cruelly afflicted himself by injuries this year. Ribs, back and respiratory problems have meant he has not made it beyond a quarter-final anywhere since Melbourne. As a result “my confidence is a bit down”.

If the Mediterranean weather continues, though, those weary Cypriot bones may just be revitalised. What is certain is that Baghdatis will chase every ball, whatever the stage.

There could scarcely have been a greater contrast between Court Three yesterday and the Rod Laver Arena in January when Melbourne’s huge Greek community turned out en masse to roar him to victories over Andy Roddick and David Nalbandian. The nearest thing to an Australian cheer squad this time was the courtside presence of the impeccably behaved former Wallaby fly-half Michael Lynagh.

The noise levels will surely increase if the underdog can make it into the second week. Baghdatis’s home village near Limassol is called Paramytha which translates as “fairytale” in Greek. It would be one hell of a tale if he reaches next week’s final, deserving of the full Hollywood treatment. My Big Fat Greek Backhand does have a certain ring to it.

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