After a year of ascent, young Cypriot tennis star ready for share of limelight

LONDON – This time last year, Marcos Baghdatis was playing in a second-tier grass court event in Nottingham, earning a paltry 1,225 dollars for reaching the semifinals. Twelve months on, he was playing in a Wimbledon Center Court semifinal in front of 15,000 people, taking home 300,000 dollars after a thrilling, but ultimately fruitless, attempt to prevent Rafael Nadal – the competition’s eventual losing finalist – from making the final. If 2005 was a year of struggle, 2006 has been one of breakthroughs for the 21-year-old Cypriot, whose all-action, emotionally charged game and rugged good looks made him an instant star at Wimbledon. But the Cypriot, who was runner-up to Roger Federer at the Australian Open in January, wants to be known for his on-court efforts not his off-court attractions. ‘Starting to like grass’ «It’s been fun here,» said Baghdatis who had never won a match here before this year, convinced that grass was for football and not tennis. «I’m starting to like grass, that’s a good thing and it’s just another experience for me. I played another semifinal of a Grand Slam.» Baghdatis, who began the tournament as number 16 on the ATP world rankings, is now placed 10th. «The most positive thing is that I feel close to the top, and close to Nadal, close to Roger Federer,» he continued. «That’s the most important thing.» Even though he was beaten 6-1, 7-5, 6-3 by the Spaniard, Baghdatis had his chances. Outgunned in just 30 minutes in the first set, he carved out nine break points against a man who hasn’t dropped his serve since the second round but was unable to cash them in. Federer will be going for a fourth successive title here against Nadal on Sunday. With a 47-match winning streak on grass, stretching back to his last defeat here four years ago, the world number one is the favorite to win but Nadal has the psychological edge, boasting a 6-1 career record over the Swiss. That includes all four meetings this year, all in finals. Baghdatis, having seen both Federer and Nadal up close, said, ahead of Sunday’s final, that he believed the Spaniard stood a chance. «My thinking is that every day is different and everybody can beat everybody,» said Baghdatis. «There aren’t many players like Nadal on the circuit. When you’re playing against him, you lose points at important moments because he brings the ball back one time more and you just miss it because you’re not ready. «There are not a lot of weaknesses in his game. When he’s defending, he’s playing unbelievable. He can be nowhere and he can put the ball so deep. When he’s attacking, the ball is so fast. You just run everywhere and you don’t know where to be on the court. I think he’s serving better than before and he’s returning better. «He doesn’t have a lot of negative things in his game.»