Fans of Andy Roddick couldn’t be happy seeing their man get upset in the fourth round of the 2006 Australian Open. As the tournament went on, however, it because increasingly hard to dislike the guy who beat him.
The then-20-year-old Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis played a game that might best be referred to as “extroverted”: There was a resounding *pop* every time he connected with a groundstroke, he served big, and he crowded the service box on returns.
Backed by the partisan Greek contingent in Melbourne, he played with infectious energy and a shot selection that was, to put a positive spin on it, brave.
After beating Roddick, he defeated No. 8 Ivan Ljubicic and rallied from down two sets to defeat No. 4 David Nalbandian. In the final, he took the first set against Roger Federer before succumbing both to Federer’s all-court game and his own exhaustion (he’d also gone five against Radek Stepanek in round two, and his calf muscle had to be treated near the end of the final).
His results after this were erratic, but at Wimbledon he again came alive, stopping the then-rising Andy Murray in straight sets and then, to the surprise of many, clobbering 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt in the quarters. After his semifinal loss to Rafael Nadal, his summer was quiet, with him re-emerging with some of his best tennis at the US Open.
Unfortunately for him, 36-year-old Andre Agassi also had his best tennis available for one more match. Though there’s enough of an age difference between them to squeeze in a high school sophomore, the American legend yanked the Cypriot around the court, jumping out to a two-set lead.
Such was his talent that the streaky Baghdatis recovered from that deficit to force a fifth set, before being famously undone by Agassi’s play and cramps.
2006 revealed the potential of the Cypriot, and not just in his stroke production: In a game where some talents can’t handle the pressure of majors, Baghdatis seemed to relish those opportunities offered by the games biggest arenas and their best-of-five format.
Sadly, they also revealed his flaws as a competitor. His suspect fitness was exposed by his matches with Federer and Agassi. He followed his comprehensive win over Hewitt with a straight-set drubbing from Nadal, whom he later said that he “can’t play” against.
2007 was a lackluster year by comparison: He won no titles, and his best performance was again in defeat, as he fell 7-5 in the fifth against Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon quarters.
In 2008, he took part in the longest day in Australian Open history, eventually losing to Hewitt in the third round in a match that finished just past 4 a.m.
Only flashes of brilliance have been seen since: His win over Robin Soderling at this year’s AO looks a lot better in retrospect, but he lost in round one at Roland Garros and didn’t even play at Wimbledon or the US Open. He is currently ranked No. 103 in the world.
The best thing about this year is that time in the ATP Challenger Tour, the minor league of professional tennis, can be good for a player.
At his lowest, Agassi played several such events in early 1998 after falling out of the top 100, which preceded his storybook rebirth the following year.
In 2009, Baghdatis has won a pair of Challenger events in Vancouver and St. Remy, so his return to the main-draw tournaments seems inevitable; perhaps right on time to delight the Greeks in Melbourne in January.
When he does come back, though, one can only hope he’s internalized a few important lessons. The first of these would be fitness; his ability to take the ball early and hit winners from all directions does recall Agassi, even if he can’t do it quite as frequently.
Even Double-A eventually found that such skills were of limited value without taking good care of one’s body, though; at times Baghdatis’ build suggests that he doesn’t save his celebrating for the courts.
The next item would be point construction. We all love to see sudden flashy down-the-line winners during rallies. When you’re on fire as Baghdatis was in Australia such shots appear bold; when your form isn’t so great, they just look like poor strategy.
Finally, there are certain things a professional tennis player ought never to say: Baghdatis is, after all, the guy that once admitted that Nadal’s style flummoxes him terribly and makes victory over the Spaniard unlikely.
The fact that he said this just before a match with Nadal (in Paris 2007) may have been meant to take the pressure off himself.
Indeed, Nadal’s style bothers many people, Federer included, but one can’t imagine The Great Swiss ever saying such a thing to encourage his opponents before a match.
The sad fact is that it doesn’t appear that Baghdatis emphasizes the “professional” part of being a “professional tennis player.” For a long time Agassi didn’t either, so Baghdatis still has time to change.
He’s already 24 and some of his prime tennis years are already past, though, so he ought to get started right away.