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Man with the 1,000-watt smile

In Baghdatis, a star was born at the Australian Open

Posted: Friday January 27, 2006 11:22AM; Updated: Friday January 27, 2006 11:43AM
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Marco Baghdatis is winning over countless fans with his solid play and giant smile.
Marco Baghdatis is winning over countless fans with his solid play and giant smile.
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MELBOURNE, Australia -- At least for now, the tennis world belongs to Marcos Baghdatis. We're all just along for the ride.

The 20-year-old Cyprus native continued his fairytale journey at the Australian Open on Thursday with a stirring comeback from a two-set deficit against workhorse David Nalbandian of Argentina. What started off as an intriguing story has developed into the greatest "dark horse" run since Gustavo Kuerten rose from obscurity to win his first French Open in 1997.

Similarly to Kuerten, Baghdatis has captured everyone's imagination with his free-flowing game and 1,000-watt smile. He is exactly what the tennis world has been craving: a bright, charismatic talent who understands the value of entertainment in sport. He dribbles the ball through his legs like a Harlem Globetrotter, silently crosses himself before and after matches and exhorts and provokes his Greek supporters like a conductor guiding a symphony.

Make no mistake about it: The tennis world has a new star. This tournament is Baghdatis' coming-out party, but by no means is this result a fluke. He was a world junior champion and the Australian Open junior champion in 2003. He reached the fourth round here last year, upsetting Tommy Robredo and Ivan Ljubicic along the way before losing to Roger Federer.

Baghdatis' potential has never been in doubt, but his ability to channel his emotions was a concern. At the tender age of 20, it looks as if he has figured out how to harness his exuberance and use it as fuel for his all-court game.

When I played Baghdatis in the first round, I was most impressed with the ease at which he could produce all of his shots and how difficult it was to rush him. It all stems from his incredible balance and speed. Tennis is a game of timing, and his speed and balance give him more of a timing advantage while taking it away from his opponents. Baghdatis is adept at playing offensively from inside the court, but equally dangerous in neutralizing his opponent's shots.

The Cypriot sensation is the poster boy for the new generation of professional tennis: Great athletes who can challenge you with every aspect of their game -- excellent serves and ground strokes, but they still can finish at the net. Unfortunately, in order for Baghdatis to complete this inconceivable run, he will need to figure out how to dethrone the current king of tennis: Federer.

Even if Baghdatis doesn't solve that puzzle this weekend, an entertaining and deserved star was born during this fortnight in Melbourne. For that, the tennis world should be thankful.

Tie-breakers

The nature of Amelie Mauresmo's victory over Kim Clijsters -- who was unable to finish their semifinal match because of a sprained ankle -- was a disappointing way to gain entry into the final of a Grand Slam. Throw in a favorable draw and another victory by way of an opponent retiring and fortune finally seems to be shining on the Frenchwoman at a major. But these might be the kinds of breaks Mauresmo needs to get over the dubious distinction of being one of the winningest women's players without a major title.

Still, I wouldn't bet on it (even though I'll be the first to admit my picks at this Aussie haven't been exactly stellar). Mauresmo's opponent in the women's final, Justine Henin-Hardenne, is far stronger. With four Grand Slams and an Olympic gold medal under her belt, she's not the type of player to flinch when victory is in her grasp.

Outspoken ATP tennis pro Justin Gimelstob participated in this year's Australian Open and is a frequent contributor to SI.com.

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