Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - The Soulful Goof
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The Soulful Goof 10/21/2009 - 4:42 PM

Mb The cavernous echo when ball meets string, the single camera angle from somewhere deep in the rafters, the overarching darkness, the elongated court that looks like it’s in the middle of a wind tunnel and seems to play like it’s made of ice: You know you’re a hardened tennis junkie if you’re watching Stockholm online at work this week.

Still, I had my reasons. Or I had one reason, anyway. It was to get a look, even if only from a distance, at a former favorite player of mine who has just resurfaced at the barren and frozen edges of the pro tour. Marcos Baghdatis, former Aussie Open finalist, Wimbledon semifinalist, foil for Andre Agassi at the U.S. Open, and a man who was described in a London tabloid as “looking more like an extra from My Big Fat Greek Wedding than a serious tennis player,” had dropped all the way to No. 151 in July. Years of injuries, dubious training habits, and the rise of a more persistent and ambitious group of young players had forced the Cypriot far from game’s big stages and screens. But after three titles in recent Challenger events, he’s back in the Top 70 (Kind of a meteoric rise just from winning Challengers, right? But never mind, we'll take it). Based on his three-set loss to Rafael Nadal two weeks ago in Beijing, and his straight-set win over No. 3 seed Juan Carlos Ferrero today, Baghdatis' game is edging back into form along with his ranking.

Since this is Baghdatis, we need a “to be sure” caveat about now. And it’s true, he beat no one of note in those Challengers, and Ferrero has lost in the first round of this tournament three straight years. But whichever Baghdatis shows up next—he plays Robert Kendrick, a match you would think he would win—it was nice to see his familiar, unassuming style and spic-and-span ball striking again.

Baghdatis didn’t look much different, at least from the view in the rafters. He’s still doughy, low-to-the-ground, and surprisingly mobile. He still bounces the ball between his legs and flips his hair around between points. He can still absorb pace and send it back with a perfectly timed laser from either side. And he can still hit a killer approach shot, follow it up by stoning an easy overhead into the net, and then kick the ball up and play a little keepy-uppy to the fans' delight. On this day, though, Baghdatis didn’t make many mistakes. He moved up to short balls well and caught them high and early—never a specialty—and by the end of the first set he was hauling off and hitting blatant crosscourt backhand winners on the run.

I like the guy’s personality—is there any tennis fan who just can’t stand Marcos Baghdatis? (yeah, probably, now that I mention it)—but it’s his timing I miss the most. I watched Baghdatis play Novak Djokovic from the first row at the Italian Open two years ago. It was a fairly ugly match that was lost by Baghdatis, who seemed to be in a despairing mood, more than it was won by Djokovic. But from that vantage point, you could fully appreciate, get a feel for, the guy’s aptitude for hitting a tennis ball. By comparison, Djokovic’s strokes, which are viciously elegant in their own right, looked labored—the Serb didn’t connect as purely and compactly with the ball. Baghdatis’ shots had a different sound; there was an easy full power to them, like a well-struck drive in golf.

Of course, Baghdatis lost the match. That was in part because he wasn’t as determined or confident a competitor as Djokovic was in those days, back when the Serb was still talking about becoming No. 1. But it was also because Baghdatis didn’t have the variety of shot of his opponent. I’m not just talking about using slice or taking pace off the ball; I’m talking about basic things like trajectory. Baghdatis does one thing so well—hit low line drives—that he rarely tries to do anything else. That can work against him. If his opponent likes pace, he’s going to get plenty of it from Baghdatis. If his opponent finds a groove, Baghdatis is going to have to outhit him, rather than give him different looks. And when his shots clear the net, especially on his backhand side, they clear it by inches and nothing more.

The top of the men’s game is rich with talent and personality right now. But there’s room for a Baghdatis, a warm and likeable showman, a goof, a guy who isn’t going to make the semis of every Slam, but when he wins, it’s going to be fun watching him do it—a guy who is worth checking out simply to see him make contact with a tennis ball. As Juan Martin del Potro showed at the U.S. Open, the men’s game can use someone else with the skills to surprise one of the Top 4.

As I said, in Rome in 2007 Baghdatis was uncharacteristically despairing, almost Safin-like in his readiness to think the worst of his game. As the match wound down and fans started to head for the exits—in the middle of points, Roman-style—a ball boy tossed a ball to Baghdatis after he’d missed an easy shot. He slammed it, unthinkingly, right back in the kid’s direction, just missing him. The kid ran after it, picked it up, and tossed it again. Baghdatis, whose face had gone from despair to outright sadness, let it go by. Then he walked over and put his hand on the boy’s face and pulled him in for a hug. Plenty of pros have slammed balls around tennis courts, but few have given out hugs to ball kids. Call it one more reason to wish for his return. Baghdatis may be a goof, but he’s a goof with soul.


Posted by atennisfan 10/21/2009 at 05:23 PM

am I first? by the way I think Baghdatis reminds me of Nalbadian, stocky who hit cleanly,obviously better personality, who can have more fun , hope he is back in the game

Posted by awwo 10/21/2009 at 05:37 PM

Yes, here's hoping Baggy makes it back into the top 20 at least.

Posted by greenhopper 10/21/2009 at 05:41 PM

"Roman-style—a ball boy tossed a ball to Baghdatis after he’d missed an easy shot. He slammed it, unthinkingly, right back in the kid’s direction, just missing him. The kid ran after it, picked it up, and tossed it again. Baghdatis, whose face had gone from despair to outright sadness, let it go by. He walked over and put his hand on the boy’s face and pulled him in for a hug."

Sigh. Love this guy.
Great write up once again, Steve.

Posted by Ronald 10/21/2009 at 07:03 PM

Excellent article Steve. It really was so much fun to see him reach that AO final. And while I never saw that Rome incident, reading your account made me feel like I lived it. Great stuff.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 10/21/2009 at 07:23 PM

I miss him, too, Steve. His run to the final of the 2006 AO was magical, and mesmerizing. He's a big kid playing at the professional's table. Here's hoping he can breathe some more of that joy de vivre back into the game.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 10/21/2009 at 07:36 PM

What happened to my 8th grade French? Joie de vivre!

Posted by Master Ace 10/21/2009 at 08:03 PM

From this week to the end of 2009, Baghdatis has a chance to be a player no one wants to play in the early round if he regains that 2006 AO form where he was stopped by Roger or even 2006 W form where he was stopped by Rafael. I believe his confidence dipped after 2006 but he always play Davis Cup for his country without fail whether they are in Zonal play or not.

Posted by Susanna728 10/21/2009 at 08:08 PM

I too was online watching that match this morning. I saw Baghdatis play at Indian Wells in 2008 -- night match on an outer court, ended close to midnight, cold and windy, only a small crowd and most of them supporting his opponent, Wayne Odesnik. Marcos fought his heart out and pulled it out in the third set. Have been a huge fan of his ever since. One of the best talents (and one the best smiles) in tennis. Thanks for the article.

Posted by monkey1988 10/21/2009 at 10:48 PM

being australian, but of greek cypriot descent, its obvious why baghdatis is my favourite player. His run to the Aussie open final while i was doing my hsc (the end of high school test in Australia) was one of the most memorable moments in my life. I love the way he plays and his personality, and i'm just hoping that after a couple of years in almost a limbo, with multiple coach changes and different levels of motivation that this is the beginning of a comeback. The way the end of this year is turning out is quite similar to 2005, where he won a few challenger events, and then got the the final of a couple of tournaments, with a few big wins over Nalbandian, and losing in 3 to gonzalez in the final. Im hoping that he manages to go deep in the tournament in Stockholm, winning wouldn't even be out of the picture, and i wonder if he will be in the paris 1000, where he has played well before. If he can get through a few good rounds there, and boost his confidence for next year, something which seems to be very important for him, i would say 2010 will be a very good year!!

Posted by monkey1988 10/21/2009 at 11:01 PM

Being Australian, but of Greek Cypriot descent, its probably obvious why Baghdatis is my favourite player. It actually came as a surprise to me, however, that at the 2006 wimbledon fourth round against Lleyton Hewitt that i found myself barracking for him. It is not just his much better personality, (hewitt, while better in recsent years is still a little too high strung for my taste), but his game is so exciting and full of potential. His run to the Aussie open final was so exciting and amazing to me, especially while i was doing my hsc (the australian final school test).
His rescent form at the end of this year is very similar to the end of 2005, where he won a few challenger events and got to the final of a tournament, beating nalbandian along to way until losing to gonzales in 3 in the final. I hope very much that he can get through a few more rounds in Stockholm, maybe even winning, but a least a few wins over big players. I'm not sure if he is able to play in Paris, but it would be great if he could as he has played well there in the past, and a few wins would give him a lot of confidence.
Baghdatis seems to need confidence to play well, and i hope that he can have a good end to this year, work hard in the off season, as i predict 2010 could be a big year for him. The game is so much more exciting with him playing well, and its so easy to barrack with him as he plays with passion, but never gets in the way of him having fun and losing sight of the bigger picture in life.

Posted by monkdy1988 10/21/2009 at 11:02 PM

oh man sorry bout the double post, i didn't realise that it posted before, it didn't show up for me
thats embarrassing...

Posted by May 10/22/2009 at 04:03 AM

Damn it, Steve, that almost got me teary-eyed. Baggy used to be a great favorite of mine, but I have long resigned myself to the fact that the guy is in the wrong profession. He should be a DJ or something of the sort. Nothing that requires the appearance of making an effort, and we all know tennis can be played that way only if your name is Roger Federer.

Posted by richie 10/22/2009 at 08:32 AM

Steve - Reading though the comments to your blog on Baghdatis, it is hard to find a more popular player. I can still remember watching him play the classic match with Agassi in the US OPEN - a match you felt he was going to lose but would win a lot of fans. I am also hopeing that he can regain his form and add his excitement to the men's game. A terrific article on a player that we all miss.

Posted by Syd 10/22/2009 at 09:39 AM

Steve, nice piece. "visciously elegant" - lovely. And so true of Dojos striking.

But hasn't it been multiple injuries that have brought Baggy down? All sorts of back injury problems, including been hauled off court on a stretcher at one point,and then wrist injuries. Maybe as you say, it's his dubious training regime that has left him injury-prone. Here's hoping that Baggy will rise again, he brings something special to the court.

Posted by sblily (Wheeeeeeeeee!) 10/22/2009 at 11:59 AM

Now that was GOOD, Steve.

I've never really considered myself a fan of Baggy, but dang, reading this makes me remember what he brings to the game and why he's such a compelling player. I hope this comeback is for real - things are more fun when he's in the mix.

Posted by Bobby 10/22/2009 at 12:45 PM

Baggy was always one of favorites. He brought a character to tennis that no one else ever had before. and on his day his tennis is excellent.

Hopefully next year will be his comeback year

Posted by Coolios 10/22/2009 at 12:49 PM

Im British-Cypriot and in 2006 when Baghdatis had that amazing run at the AO, its like the whole island of Cyprus came together. It was such a special time. We were in school and they put up a projector for students who had free periods and it was a blast.

In Cyprus we dont have many big international sport stars so it was kind of a new thing for Cyprus.

Hope he comes back to his best

Posted by SimonSays 10/22/2009 at 12:51 PM

He brought something new to tennis with his character, and hes also a great player. hope he wins stockholm

Posted by Anna 10/22/2009 at 12:59 PM

I too am a fan and keep hoping for him. To me he is a clone between Safin (in drama) and Agassi (in strokes) with a bigger smile.
I clearly believe he can be top 10, his talent is for top 5, but he would need to make a huge commitment. I predict semis for Stockholm, I cannot imagine he has the weapons yet to take out Soderling

Posted by George 10/22/2009 at 04:17 PM

Beautiful article Steve..Marcos owns it to himself to come back and become one of the best. He always had the talent but maybe the wrong way to handle success after AO2006 combined with injuries put him in the position he is in ,today.

I really hope to have him back for good this time.

Go Marcos!

Posted by Stefanos 10/22/2009 at 04:19 PM

Great article steve, theres a a great bunch of baggy lovers out there praying for his comeback. We even have our web meeting place

Posted by maedal (Vamos Rafa!) 10/22/2009 at 05:45 PM

Steven, thanks for the post on Baggy, one of my favorites. I've missed him--and his smile.

Posted by ralph 10/22/2009 at 06:39 PM

What a surprise to see an article about Baggy instead of the usual suspects. He is also one of my favorites. I hope he does well so we can see him once again in the majors.

Posted by Well Left 10/22/2009 at 06:50 PM

Anyone heard if Baggy dumped his entourage? He's had an amateur camera crew following him around for a while. When his insanely foxy girlfriend dumped him, it was mostly due to lack of privacy, right around the time of that Rome meltdown.

His quickness to the ball and clean strokes do suggest he can take it to anybody if he's fit and relatively uninjured. Maybe he'll resurface in Oz.

Thanks for making me care (slightly) about tennis in October, Steve.

Posted by Peterabbit 10/23/2009 at 03:49 AM

I first met Marcos when he was just out of Juniors and have followed his tennis life ever since. No one who has ever watched someone hit a tennis ball can fail to admire his skills and revel in his personality. Even through his recent bad patch there was always the moment when he hit those gem of a shots that make him so special. He may never be the ultimate winner but winning is'nt everything when he gives so many people like me so much pleasure anyway.!!

Posted by Yannis lausanne 10/23/2009 at 06:01 AM

I never had a doubt that Marcos will come back to the top, he is a great player, fun to watch. I knew nothing about tennis until I saw him play and I became a tennis fan. Go Marco go !!

Posted by Yannis lausanne 10/23/2009 at 06:05 AM

I never had a doubt that Marcos will come back to the top, he is a great player, fun to watch. I knew nothing about tennis until I saw him play and I became a tennis fan. Go Marco go !!Yannis lausanne

Posted by Kaygee 10/23/2009 at 11:39 AM

Great article - love this boy.

However, I always thought there was something of a troubled soul behind that beautiful smile and those warm eyes - almost a cry for understanding. The smile reflected his beautiful soul but at times the eyes showed lack of confidence - almost a lack of belief in himself. I certainly hope that things have come together for Baggy and we can enjoy him again on the tour on a more regular basis - the boy is a breath of fresh air.

Did I mention I love this blessed child?

Posted by Bhai Mirzai 10/23/2009 at 07:16 PM

OK, so now he is in the semis of Stokholm. The match against Soderling will be a good measure of where he is.

Posted by Andrew Miller 10/23/2009 at 11:52 PM

Well I'll say one thing: Baghdatis has my vote when he pulls off feats like Davydenko does.

Baghdatis made one Major final, one semifinal, and some QF here and there. But I'm waiting for him to put it on the line. This is a step in the right direction.

There are more steps. They are there to be taken. Baghdatis: take the steps, and good luck.

Posted by Sher 10/26/2009 at 11:46 AM

[Call it one more reason to wish for his return. Baghdatis may be a goof, but he’s a goof with soul.]

aww steve...word

Posted by monkey1988 10/28/2009 at 03:19 AM

well, a win in stockholm sorta surpassed my expectations, but what i'm more enthused about is his plans for the rest of the year to play one more challenger, then to work really hard in the off season. i think this is a really good move, no need to play in paris, but he is definately carrying a few extra kilos, if he can get fit over the summer, and practice with his new coach (don't know his name, but heard is former coach of nalbandian and del potro) next year is going to be awesome!!!

Posted by hl 10/29/2009 at 01:54 PM

He won the Stockholm 10/25/09

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