Being an islander, Marcos Baghdatis is naturally drawn towards the sun, to all things happy and bright. Being a professional athlete in a lonely sport that requires monk-like dedication hasn't always been congruent to that.
Sometimes the mind, a lot of times the body, wasn't quite been able to cope to the challenges of this ultra-competitive age of tennis as Baghdatis bounced around the ranking charts more than the fuzzy yellow ball he has made a career chasing. The man from sunny Cyprus, who captured the imagination of the tennis world during that Australian summer of 2006, is set to call it a day after 16 years on the tour.
Baghdatis, 34, announced on Monday that the 2019 Wimbledon Championship will be his last tournament.
"I am extremely grateful to the All England Club for granting me a main draw wild card… and giving me a chance to say goodbye to the sport that I love so much and has been such a big part of my life for the last 30+ years," he said in a statement on social media. "This decision was not an easy one. It has proven tough for me, especially physically, to come back to where I feel like I belong."
It is difficult to place where exactly Baghdatis fits in tennis' pecking order. Undeniably talented and overwhelmingly popular, the Cypriot never quite looked like a finished product. He was emotional, temperamental on court (remember him breaking four racquets during a meltdown at 2012 Australian Open?) but was never quite the bad boy. A gutsy baseliner, he had the game to be one of the better players of his generation but never quite the discipline. He is a smiler in a sport that takes great pride in scowls of pain.
Fitting in had been a problem ever since, at the age of 13, he was yanked away from his home in Limassol, to train at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in dank and cold Paris. Tennis had been played in a family cocoon till then, with his father and two brothers.
"I left a lot of people that I loved and had to find a new life," Baghdatis had told this reporter in an earlier interview.
Having given up the warmth of home comfort, Baghdatis sought solace in tennis success. He quickly rose through the ranks and peaked at No 1 in juniors in 2003. A year later he was playing on the pro tour full-time. It was early in 2006 that Baghdatis dazzled the world with his whirring forehand and charming smile. With the massive Greek-Cypriot fan base cheering him on, Baghdatis beat the likes of the then second seed Andy Roddick and made it all the way to the Australian Open final. Even though he lost 5–7, 7–5, 6–0, 6–2 to Roger Federer, Baghdatis' run to the title clash remains one of tennis' most endearing stories in recent times.
"It's a feeling that you cannot describe," Baghdatis had said. "Making the quarter-final, winning the semi-final and then all of a sudden you are in the final of a Grand Slam, playing Roger Federer. I had a great run; I was just 20 years old. So it was something new for me, for my family. For everybody in my team, it was something new. I didn't have experienced people around me to guide me; to achieve that with them was great for all of us. We enjoyed it a lot."
That same year he also reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon, raising hopes. The tennis world eagerly waited for his career to unfold. Instead, it unravelled.
"After the Australian Open, the biggest decision — that was not the best one — was to go back to Cyprus. I relaxed a bit by doing that," he admitted during the interview. "I wasn't ready to handle that kind of success. If you see the results later I wasn't 100% ready for it."
He couldn't quite muster up the single-mindedness required for the pro tour. Travel, play, practice, repeat: life on the tour outside the glitz of the Grand Slams can get pretty dull and monotonous.
"There were moments when I wasn't happy playing tennis; I wasn't happy being on the road. I wasn't myself," he said. The results speak of his discomfort with being walled in. Since the breakthrough year in 2006, Baghdatis has only one quarter-final (Wimbledon 2007) to show in Grand Slams. In 16 years on the tour, he has reaped all of four ATP titles – the last coming in Sydney in 2010 – and a win-loss record of 348-273.
"Maybe I could have had more finals or more ATP tournament wins or more consistent career," he said. "I took decisions that were not the best for my tennis, but they were best for me as a person. I felt happy again, I felt happy with myself."
Away from the tennis court, Baghdatis had found happiness in a pretty stable family life. He married former tennis player Karolina Sprem of Croatia in 2012 and the couple has two daughters – Zahara and India—and are expecting their third child.
Baghdatis wasn't of the most consistent performers in the world, but injuries have ravaged his career in the last three years. He has suffered from back, hip, leg, ankle and foot injuries, making it difficult to stage a definitive comeback. In 2017, he retired from five matches and withdrew from nine events due to the many niggles. Once ranked as high as No 8 in the world, and having finished in top-100 for 12 straight years from 2005 to 2016, Baghdatis will enter Wimbledon as World No 136.
"Even though my mind wants to do it, the limits of my body have prevented me to maintain and play at a consistently high level as I expect from myself," he added in the statement. "Thank you for always believing in me and pushing me to become better. My team, my close friends, but especially the fans around the world. You made me feel welcome in each and every city and country I have ever been to, and your love, support, and energy is something I will truly miss."
Baghdatis spent his final days on the tour playing on the lower-level Challenger tour, but his name never fails to pique interest. He is more popular than he was ever successful. For many legions of tennis fans, his pursuit of happiness is more relatable than the pursuit of greatness of some of his contemporaries. The game may not fawn over his results, but it will remember the sunny personality.
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Updated Date: Jun 25, 2019 08:29:05 IST