Back To Basics
by James Buddell|
Eight years ago Eurosport, the pan-European sports channel, shadowed Marcos Baghdatis during a year of transition, starting with his Australian Open junior triumph to his first tentative steps on the ATP Challenger Tour and Orange Bowl success, via Patrick Mouratoglou’s tennis academy in Paris.
Baghdatis, like the sport he loves so dearly, has naturally evolved over the years. His spirit may have taken a hit after a series of ankle, back, respiratory, rib and wrist problems following his Annus mirabilis of 2006, but it is testament to the Cypriot’s character and Mediterranean weather that his weary bones and mind are revitalised.
"Winning a Grand Slam is the greatest thing, but I also want to be Top 10 again."
The agile, gifted entertainer, whose killer smile is always close to the surface, has nurtured the fire that burns so brightly in his bottomless brown eyes. As an ebullient character, who radiates immense enjoyment and draws spectators into his matches with his unstinting effort, the youthful enthusiasm of the wide-eyed junior at the dawn of his senior career remains.
“I think even after all the injuries I’ve had, I believe I love the sport even more,” reflects Baghdatis, whose life and career have been far from ordinary. “Winning a Grand Slam is the greatest thing, but I also want to be Top 10 again. That is what I am working towards.”
Baghdatis was, effectively, “born on a tennis court”. His Tripoli-born father, Christos, took to the sport in his mid-30s on the advice of his physio that tennis would not aggravate old injuries. “Marcos is right in that he was born on a tennis court. From the age of 18 months, Marcos spent hour-after-hour on-court as my elder sons, Marinos and Petros, played tournaments.”
His childhood was a “lost paradise”, spent among a close-knit working class family. He had followed in the footsteps of his brothers by playing at the Famagusta and Sporting Tennis Clubs, and taken part in beach football matches every Sunday. But that innocence ended at the age of 11 when his older brother Marinos, the top player in Cyprus, who Marcos considered a hero, suffered a serious car accident. Marinos stayed in hospital for almost 18 months.
By this stage, Christos Baghdatis had already recognised his younger son’s burgeoning talent. “His enthusiasm and will was so great, [but] Marcos did not play tennis for two years, not because of Marinos’ car accident, but because there were no suitable coaches in Cyprus to train him.”
When Baghdatis returned to the sport, he once again showcased the appetite and aptitude to become a tennis champion. Patrick Mouratoglou, a French coach, first watched the 13-and-a-half-year-old Baghdatis at “Les Petits As” in Tarbes.
"The decision to send Marcos to Paris was very hard... You can imagine how hard it was."
Mouratoglou, who currently coaches Aravane Rezai and Laura Robson, remembers, “I immediately fell in love when I watched him. I saw someone different from the others. He was putting a lot of emotion on the court. I liked his game. The main thing was that I felt this young kid had a personality to go far in the men’s game.
“I met Christos during this tournament [in Tarbes] and they later came to my academy to talk about the future. Christos was very lucid and very ambitious for his son. He knew that staying in Limassol meant there was no chance of becoming a professional tennis player. He wanted Marcos to have a good chance of succeeding.”
Baghdatis visited Mouratoglou's academy on a one-week trial in October 1999. Talks continued, but a decision needed to be made. Christos and Marcos’ mother, Andry, discussed the possibility of their youngest son moving from Paramytha to another country. “The decision to send Marcos to Paris was very hard,” explains Christos. “My wife and I spent weeks and months talking it through. You can imagine how hard it was.”
Care-free Baghdatis arrived in Paris out of condition, alone and with no knowledge of the language. “He was not an athlete at all,” recalls Mouratoglou. “I remember having him do some physical tests. Afterwards, the specialist said to me, ‘Sorry but this kid will never be a professional sportsman.’ I didn’t believe it. I thought that he would work and build his body for tennis.”
For Baghdatis, who had always been surrounded by his family, it was another life-defining moment. “When I left for Paris my family still had a big influence on me,” says Baghdatis. “It’s how my life was. I became the person I am from the way I grew up, from the things I learnt in life.” By day, he revelled in playing tennis. At night, he dreamt of life back in Cyprus.
“It’s been stated that he begged me for a return to Cyprus, but he didn’t,” says Christos Baghdatis. “I would ring him at 7 a.m. each day and he said everything was okay.”
Mouratoglou adds, “I knew that Marcos had trouble getting used to life in Paris. Seeing that he was sad, I worried and called his father. ‘Christos, your son is very sad. He is having trouble getting used to his new type of life. Maybe, this life isn’t for him.’
“’Don’t worry,’ Christos answered. ‘He’s going to get used to it,’ without any doubt in the voice. I decided to trust him and waited to see how Marcos would be a few months later. His father was right, finally he started to understand French, have friends, and get used to his new life.”
Christos and Andry Baghdatis later found out that Marcos had cried every night for the first three months of his new life. He would return from training, have dinner with his adopted family, then go to his room and close the door. “No one in the family he stayed with had told me,” says Christos. “I have been portrayed as a hard father, but it is far from the truth. I wanted what was best for Marcos.
"Over the years he had been a father-figure to his family, looking after them."
“We were taking a huge risk, sending Marcos to a new family. At times I thought it was a big mistake. Unfortunately Cyprus could not provide him with a platform to develop as an aspiring professional player. We took a big risk, but it paid off. I would not do it again.”
It would be 10 years before Baghdatis returned to Cyprus to train full-time. It was time to return to his spiritual home. "Over the years he had been a father-figure to his family, looking after them," admits his coach Guillaume Peyre. In October 2009, he arrived in Limassol for a fresh start. "Psychologically, I was a long way from home," says Baghdatis.
Last season, Baghdatis found himself at a crossroads. More than three years had passed since his fairytale run to the 2006 Australian Open final and a career-high No. 8 world ranking. His last run to a major quarter-final came in 2007 at Wimbledon. He found himself at No. 151 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, and reminiscent of his childhood hero, Andre Agassi, who famously found himself at World No. 141 on 10 November 1997, he was determined to make a positive change.
“I was not happy with my performances at Grand Slams, but if I am honest I wasn’t really preparing for Grand Slam play,” he says. “I didn’t think of preparing for the majors, for me it was about winning points, playing as many matches as I could.”
It was one of the reasons why he re-appointed his former coach Peyre. “When I was younger we learned a lot about tennis together and even when we parted I admired him a lot as a coach. We stayed in touch and he is one of the people that has always believed in me.”
Baghdatis also signed for IMG, the global sports and media business, to build his profile and raise his profile internationally, and aged 25 he took the difficult decision to step down from Davis Cup duty in September. “It was definitely not an easy decision to step down from Davis Cup,” he says. “But I have to think that Cypriots and my fans will realise that winning a Grand Slam or breaking back into the Top 10 at this stage of my career is a better goal than playing in Division II.”
When his season was curtailed by a shoulder injury in late October, Baghdatis took 10 days off to recuperate. Then, from 14 November, for five straight weeks, Baghdatis gritted his teeth and subjected himself to an arduous training regimen. “There are always people who say what I am doing is not enough,” confirms Baghdatis, “yet if I focus on what I am doing then I know I will be happy.”
The goal was to step decisively in a new direction. To ensure that at the end of his career, he would not ask himself, ‘What if…?’ Living out of a suitcase, in yet another hotel room, with only his coach Peyre, physical trainer Andreas Nicolaou and physio Diego Martos for company, Baghdatis stepped into the unknown, determined to push himself harder than at any stage of his career.
"I have a lot of problems with athleticism, so I have to put in the extra hours off court."
“Tennis has changed a lot since I had good results in 2005 and 2006,” explains Baghdatis. “Everyone is playing better tennis and I feel as if I am a better player myself. Each year, the sport evolves.
“I have a lot of problems with athleticism, so I have to put in the extra hours off court to ensure I am in good shape mentally and physically to compete at the highest level. Because, I know at 25, I will have some more chances at Grand Slams.”
Taking just Sundays off, Baghdatis trained for 26-30 hours per week. “Marcos may not have liked it at times, but he has always been disciplined in his training to become a better tennis player,” confesses Nicolaou. "He did the same off-season training three or four years ago, but with very different results."
At meal times, fried and fatty foods — like pizzas, burgers, lamb and veal — disappeared from the menu, replaced by five small steamed or grilled meals a day, in an effort to stabilise Baghdatis’ weight management. Turkey and cheese on whole wheat bread, sometimes with peanut butter, three white half egg-yolks, Weetabix cereal and honey became breakfast favourites as Baghdatis consumed up to 3,100 calories per day.
In an effort to stay mentally fresh, high altitude cycling on the Troodos Mountains, which helped build endurance, was interspersed with gym work that developed core strength. With the right motivation, Baghdatis began to run up to 26 kilometres per hour on the treadmill and cycled for up to two-and-a-half hours per day in power training. During the first few weeks, swimming, running and stretching also took priority over his desire to spend more time on court.
His performance was carefully monitored. The results were remarkable. “When he played football, you could see the change in his body,” says Nicolaou. “He was running 10 metres in 1.7 seconds, now he can do it 1.6 seconds. He used to struggle with 100 kilograms on the bench press. We can now increase it to 130 kilograms, which is good progress.
“He was 86 kilograms with 14.8 per cent body fat. Now he’s 82.3 kilograms and 10 per cent body fat. What has impressed me is how fast his heart recovers after extreme exercise. He can reach 180 beats per minute, yet drop down to 90 quickly. The main thing now is that we have to take care; we have to support these numbers. The development is to decrease the fat and increase the muscle mass, so Marcos will be more powerful and more agile.
"During the season we will look to maintain his fitness levels through injury prevention, core strength work and a regeneration program. A lot depends on how he does at tournaments, but that is the plan."
"It was no accident he was in the Top 10, a few years ago."
Stanislas Wawrinka, who first met Baghdatis in the semi-finals of the 2001 under-16 European Championships, believes his friend is now capable of returning to the Top 10. “He’s been there before and he’s reached a final of a Grand Slam, and a semi-final,” said the Swiss. “He’s had some problems with injuries and that has set him back quite a bit. But I think if he can stay fit and play a full season then he has everything to get back up there.”
Peyre agrees. “It was no accident he was in the Top 10, a few years ago. As long as he keeps working hard, he’ll be in contention to attain his goals. For me, if he is to break back into the Top 10 he will also need to improve his first serve percentage. He’ll then be in contention to win a big tournament, which is a goal for both of us.”
In 2003, when Baghdatis turned professional and was crowned ITF Junior World Champion, he was very confident in his ability. He knew how good he was. “Every time he was playing someone that was supposed to be much better than him, he would go on court to beat him and that would pay off 90 per cent of the time,” remembers Mouratoglou. “He enjoyed moving up the rankings and was really excited with the idea of achieving big goals. This enthusiasm was very contagious.”
Mouratoglou believes with that attitude, Baghdatis can achieve anything. “When he wants to do something, he gives all his heart and dedication for it,” he says. “Then he can achieve unbelievable things. He just sometimes needs a click to decide, and then go straight in one direction.”
Last year, Baghdatis rose from No. 150 to back inside the Top 20 and after a gruelling off-season, the shaggy-haired World No. 21 has put himself back in contention again. “Marcos is a bright and determined kid,” says his proud father. “He appreciates what he’s got and is now ready to apply himself to maximise his talent.”
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