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Cyprus gives its heart to US Open native son

Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis faces Andre Agassi on the tennis court Thursday night.

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Unbelievable, perhaps, but true: Marcos Baghdatis, the flamboyant Cypriot tennis sensation, hails from a modest little village called Paramytha whose name translates as "fairy tale."

At the beginning of the year, few outside his native Cyprus had heard of him. He was ranked 55th in the world. Today, the 21-year-old is No. 8 and poised to topple into belated retirement the similarly charismatic and immensely popular player he most admired as a child: Andre Agassi.

Never before has Cyprus, with a population of fewer than 1 million people, produced such a sporting hero whose fighting spirit and courage have led an enthralled local media to liken him to Hercules and Achilles. Commentators have labeled him "the greatest Cypriot sportsman of all time" and dubbed him the "Cypriot pirate" because of his rugged appearance. His shaggy locks are tamed by a bandanna and he does not shave during tournaments.

Greek Cypriots had, until this year, mostly celebrated sporting success indirectly through their cousins in Greece, as when the unfancied Greek team triumphed at the 2004 European soccer championships.

"It shows our own athletes can have glory," beams Nicos Petrou, a local fan.

Baghdatis started making global headlines in January when he beat the likes of Andy Roddick, then the world No. 2, and David Nalbandian, then No. 4, to reach the final of the Australian Open where, after taking the first set, he lost to Roger Federer.

"Marcos honors us," proclaimed a huge banner in Nicosia's main square on the eve of that final. In turn, the young star delighted television viewers at home by declaring: "I love my country and my family, and I thank Cyprus for all its support." He promised: "I will play with passion and spirit. I've got a big Cypriot heart."

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