Bombs Over Baghdatis

Marcos Baghdatis is the racket-smashingingest YouTube star in men's tennis. He could've been much more.
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Marcos Baghdatis has an emotional streak, and that emotional streak is exactly as wide as Marcos Baghdatis. That is not news to anyone who follows men's tennis, but the Cypriot’s smashy, smashy four-racquet destruction spree in the middle of his four-set loss to Stanislas Wawrinka introduced him to SportsCenter viewers who don’t really follow the sport, but are more than willing to watch a player freak out on his equipment.

ESPN’s announcers, who are more familiar with The Whole Baghdatis Thing, simply laughed and watched it happen. "That one's done as well. Hang on," said Darren Cahill after Baghdatis smashed his first two frames and covered his face in a towel. The duo in the booth knew more was coming, and sure enough, the 26-year-old destroyed another pair before concluding his tantrum. Smashing a racquet while it's still in the plastic wrapper seems rather inspired, and the scene was an amusing one, but it was a strange—and very angry—introduction to the SportsCenter crowd.

This was only the second time that Baghdatis crossed over into the consciousness (and Twitter feeds?) of mainstream sports fans. The other instance occurred more than five years ago, at the 2006 US Open. The then-21-year-old rising star played Andre Agassi during the second round in what was supposed to be the Las Vegas legend's last, the conclusion to his inspired career. It wasn’t.

The quick version: Unseeded Agassi, noticeably hobbled by a bad back but fueled by a sell-out crowd of almost 24,000, took the first two sets from his opponent who injured his wrist after a fall in the opening minutes. Baghdatis, the eighth seed, won the next two before falling 7-5 in the fifth.

But “quick version” is the wrong choice of words here, by a longshot. The match took four hours and nearly killed both men. It was astonishing, dramatic tennis. At Slate, Dan Kois astutely called it Young Agassi against Old Agassi, a notion not missed by a crowd that never left the American's side, yet slowly allowed his opponent to win them over, as well. (In the upper deck, four guys waving the Cypriot flag experienced the opposite transformation.) After the final point, Agassi painfully duck-walked to the net while a cramping Baghdatis struggled in as well. They embraced, exhausted. The pair saluted the fans, and then Agassi, overcome with emotion (and presumably pain), took a curtain call. And that beautiful moment in time was that. 

Except it wasn't. Afterward, I wandered into the bowels of Arthur Ashe Stadium to catch what I anticipated would be two very brief press conferences. Baghdatis went first, presumably because his opponent was getting treatment. (At some point during the tournament, Agassi received cortisone injections.) The defeated man looked anything but. He smiled, answered questions with wit and care, and genuinely seemed happy to be there. As Baghdatis recalled various points in the match, he acted as shocked as the 24,000 people in attendance by his opponent's ability and desire. He seemed more pleased than anyone that he had witnessed such a spectacle. He was honored to have shared the court. It wasn't bullshit; it was genuine. The "Bag Man" instantly became my favorite tennis player.

Back then, not so very long ago, the future looked bright for Baghdatis. He had recently made the finals of the 2006 Australian Open—losing to Roger Federer, which was basically like winning back then—and also reached that year's Wimbledon semifinals. He ranked among the top 10 in the world and could hit any shot he needed. He had game, he had heart, and he had charisma.

Perhaps, however, he focused a bit too much on the third quality. Baghdatis finished the year at No. 12 before dropping to No. 16 in 2007 and eventually all the way down to No. 98 in 2008. He's still battling—before the 2012 Aussie, he was No. 44 on the tour—but the chance for greatness appears gone.

I don’t know Marcos Baghdatis, of course. I do sense that it’s probably too tidy to assay that the reason for his decline-unto-downfall was to be found somewhere in that room underneath Ashe, after that loss to Agassi. But the suspicion is hard to escape. There, in that moment that I became a fan, Baghdatis was charming and laughing after the most brutal of defeats. Agassi's victory was a shocking upset, and the vanquished opponent—who, now that you mention it, looked as chubby as any top athlete of the modern era—seemed less fazed by his failure than amazed by his opponent's success. Baghdatis should have been disgusted or at least angry; instead, he seemed almost happy, almost honored to have lost. Which was not an unreasonable response in a well-adjusted human being, but a thoroughly off response for a potential champion. Baghdatis seemed like he’d be a great friend, which was what I liked about him. But there’s a reason why that isn’t a compliment often paid to top-tier professional athletes.

When a clip of him smashing racquets lights up the sports blogs, I can't say I'm surprised. Baghdatis is an emotional player, and he is breaking frames out of genuine frustration. But watch again, or watch from the perspective of someone who expected more success and less theater from Baghdatis’ top-drawer talent, and it looks different. Look at it that way, and even Baghdatis’ freakout seems overly controlled, as if he's saying, "It's just tennis, man.” That, or as if he’s putting on a show.

"Sure, I'm the bad guy for tonight," Baghdatis said in the press conference after losing to Agassi. But he offered the observation with a smile. Baghdatis was too naturally talented to play the court jester, but he fit right in as the foil. That’s to his credit, maybe. It’s also the problem.

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