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Last Updated: Friday, 27 January 2006, 06:22 GMT
Beaming Baghdatis lights up Open
By Matt Majendie

Marcos Baghdatis celebrates his win over David Nalbandian
Born: 17 June 1985
Nationality: Cypriot
Turned pro: 2003
ATP titles: None (best finish - finalist in Basel last year)
Career prize money: 220,000
Did you know? Oscar winner Charlize Theron watched his quarter-final victory over Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic
For some time, tennis has been crying out for a sparkling sideshow to Roger Federer's awesome domination of the men's game. Now it has one.

Come Sunday, Federer, arguably the best player in history, may well be celebrating another now-predictable Grand Slam success at the Australian Open.

But whatever the outcome, the star that has shone brightest in the last fortnight is Marcos Baghdatis, a virtual unknown outside the game before the tournament began.

The 20-year-old Cypriot has spent as much time talking about his French girlfriend, national military service and his riotous fans as his on-court antics.

Baghdatis first made the headlines after stunning former world number one Andy Roddick in the fourth round.

Afterwards he was asked whether he would be watching videos of his next opponent, Ivan Ljubicic, the man who inspired Croatia to Davis Cup glory last season.

He simply said: "I think my coach will watch and I'll be sleeping with my girlfriend."

We are pleading with the military to give him exemption but they are not willing to do that
Baghdatis' father Christos on the threat of military service
His post-match soundbites have proved as captivating as his delightul play, all delivered with a virtually permanent smile and cheered on by Melbourne's sizeable Cypriot contingent in the crowd at every match.

Whatever the outcome in the final, it is remarkable that Baghdatis was even able to enter the men's draw.

In Cyprus, it is virtually impossible to dodge the draft - with all males over 18 having to serve two years in the military.

Recently his father said: "We are pleading with the military to give him exemption but they are not willing to do that," he said. "It is a worry for our son."

To date, he has been given two postponements, but it remains to be seen whether the increasing public fervour back at home can persuade the Cypriot government to make a permanent exception for him.

There is no denying the support is there. After his semi-final win over David Nalbandian, the man who ended Federer's Masters Cup ambitions in the final tennis throes of 2005, his homeland went berserk.

Car horns were repeatedly honked, bouzouki music blared on the national radio and the mayor of the capital Nicosia skipped an important meeting to watch the match on a large TV screen in the city centre.

The support was echoed in Melbourne, where he has been watched by some "21 cousins and some uncles", according to the player himself.

Marcos Baghdatis and girlfriend Camille Neviere
Baghdatis' girlfriend Camille has been a regular courtside presence
After the latest riotous support in the Nalbandian game, he said: "I'll have to wake up and check if I'm dreaming."

In fact, his ascent in world tennis has been somewhat dream-like.

Cyprus boasts just 6,000 registered players and 53 tennis courts - of which just one is indoors.

One of four children - his two brothers both played Davis Cup tennis for the country - he is the first Cypriot to break into the world's top 1,000.

The Limassol-born star took up the sport as a five-year-old and, after showing initial promise, won an Olympic solidarity scholarship to hone his tennis talents at a French boarding school at the age of 14.

Reportedly he wept for the entire first week, pleading with his father down the phone to let him return home.

In the end he stuck it out and he rapidly flew up the ranks, culminating in him becoming junior world number one in 2003, the same year he won the junior title in Melbourne itself.

He clearly relishes the Rod Laver Arena and his popularity is virtually going through the roof there.

Only time will tell if he can turn his sideshow status into the main attraction.



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