Cyprus gives its heart to US Open native son

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

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."

His success is all the more remarkable as soccer-mad Cyprus has little tradition in tennis, with a mere few thousand registered players and 54 courts. Tennis has been associated with the well-off, but Baghdatis comes from a working-class background in Paramytha, a picturesque hillside village of just a few hundred people, just north of Limassol. It is so small that street signs are simply hammered onto carob trees.

Baghdatis's mother, Androulla, and father, Christos, run a clothing import business from their unassuming, one-story house, which is accessible only by a winding track and is said to be decorated with Greek Orthodox Christian icons. It is the home where the tennis star, whom friends describe as "very religious," stays when he returns to Cyprus.

Baghdatis first swung a tennis racket when he was 5, and left for a French tennis academy to develop his game when he was 14 under an Olympic Solidarity scholarship. The parting was highly unusual in the tightly-knit communities of Cyprus. His father told the boy he could return after a week if he wanted.

"He's a very sensitive boy, and he spent the first week crying, wanting to come back," says Simon Aynedjian, a friend. "He missed the family and he still does when he's away, but these are the sacrifices brave people make."

Baghdatis has a younger sister, Zena, who is still in primary school, and two older tennis-mad brothers, Marinos and Petros, who played tennis for their universities after winning scholarships to study in the US. They inspired Baghdatis – who in turn is inspiring thousands of young Cypriots to take up the sport.

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