Straw turns to tennis hero

NICOSIA (AFP) – British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw yesterday knew there was only one way to placate Greek Cypriots outraged over his visit to the breakaway north – applaud Cyprus tennis sensation Marcos Pagdatis. Britain’s top diplomat faced a hail of Greek-Cypriot protests over his decision to meet Turkish-Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat. So, in his only public appearance before the press, Straw broke the ice by tapping into the «Marcos mania» now engulfing the island as a result of the unseeded 20-year-old player’s sensational run at the Australian Open. Straw declared himself a true fan of the Greek-Cypriot wunderkind. «If I may, let me open by congratulating Marcos Pagdatis on achieving something no Brit has managed to achieve, namely qualification for the semifinals of the Australian Open,» he said. «At least now I’ve got a good tennis player I can follow in this contest.» Pagdatis has plans to slay another top seed when he takes on David Nalbandian for a place in the final of the Australian Open today. He has been the revelation of the tournament, beating second seed Andy Roddick and seventh seed Ivan Ljubicic and winning an army of admirers with his full-on commitment. His victory over Ljubicic on Tuesday triggered wild street parties in his hometown of Limassol on the south coast. Pagdatis’s achievements are even more remarkable if one considers that Cyprus has less than 6,000 registered players and a measly 54 courts. Moreover, the small Mediterranean island is gearing up for another big celebration during the semifinals, when most Cypriots will be glued to their TV screens to watch their emerging young sports star. Giant open-air screens in the major towns are being specially erected so fans can watch today’s match, expected to be a nail-biter. Meanwhile in Melbourne, with its big Greek expat population, Pagdatis is being mobbed in the streets. After recovering from a charged five-setter against Ljubicic to reach his first Grand Slam semi, the 20-year-old is turning his sights on the Argentine fourth seed. The last time they met was on carpet in Basle last year, when Pagdatis won. Pagdatis is unbeaten in the five five-setters he has played in his short career. He has many uncles and cousins living in Melbourne and has attracted football crowd-style support from fans wearing the blue and white of Euro 2004 winners Greece. The tennis ace himself is a self-confessed soccer nut and a diehard fan of Apollon Limassol FC. His giant-killing antics have made Cypriots boastfully proud, and Cyprus President Tassos Papadopoulos has exempted Pagdatis from national service so the young man can focus on his tennis. «The government acknowledges his great talent, which is why it continually exempts him from his obligation to serve with the National Guard. He has proved worthy of the understanding shown towards him,» said Papadopoulos. All Greek Cypriots must serve in the conscript army for up to 25 months. No Cypriot has ever ventured so far at a major tennis tournament.

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