With Agassi 36 at the time and Baghdatis suffering from cramps under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the two agonized on the physio table deep into the night—or early in the morning, as it turned out.
Watching highlights together as their bodies suffered in an attempt to recover from the “knife fight,” as Agassi called the fourth set in his controversial autobiography, the American recalled: “I turn to see Baghdatis extending his hand. His face says, We did that. I reach out, take his hand, we remain this way, holding hands, as the TV flickers with scenes of our savage battle.”
Agassi has long since retired, but Baghdatis is still going, and now he’s attempting to make the same late-career transition as one of the players he looked up to.
Out of the Top 140 in 1997 for reasons he so explicitly revealed in Open, Agassi returned to No. 1 and claimed two majors past his 30th birthday.
Baghdatis fell out of the Top 150 in February before capturing a grass-court Challenger in Nottingham this month. Still, the 28-year-old needed a wildcard to enter the AEGON Championships, which took place last week at Queen’s Club, as well as Wimbledon.
If his ranking doesn’t improve from its current No. 115, you wonder if the folks at the U.S. Open will be as generous come August.
In a (truncated) interview at the AEGON Championships, where he intermittently flashed his trademark smile, Baghdatis said, after retiring against Stan Wawrinka with a shoulder injury, “My goal is to get back to the Top 10.”
That simple statement, bold as it was, contradicts Baghdatis. As the man who significantly shaped his career, Patrick Mouratoglou, once said of the 2006 Australian Open finalist and Wimbledon semifinalist, he is “unbelievably complex.” (Was Agassi much different?)
He is unbelievably gifted, too.
“When a guy gets to a (Grand Slam) final and semifinal in the same year, you figure he’s going to be a perennial Top-10 player,” said Brad Gilbert, Agassi’s longtime former coach. “He hasn’t lived up to that 2006 season. But the talent is there. He’s a great ball striker.”
I must admit I’ve always wondered if Baghdatis worked hard enough at his game. Others must have thought the same. Before chatting to him, though, Baghdatis told another inquisitor he despised lazy people, which implied that he himself wasn’t that sort.
So why has Baghdatis, who has given us some of the most entertaining moments on a tennis court in the last decade—think also of his matches against Lleyton Hewitt at the 2008 Australian Open, Novak Djokovic at 2007 Wimbledon, Roger Federer at Indian Wells in 2010 and his demolition of those rackets in 2012 in Melbourne—slumped so badly?
After all, he made a newfound commitment to his fitness at the end of 2010.
When he was in the Top 10—the last time near the conclusion of 2006—Baghdatis didn’t have the “right people” around him, he said, and made errors with his schedule and mistakes of his own doing, which he didn’t elaborate on.
Injuries and illness have contributed, too. Baghdatis disclosed he had “blood problems” the last few months, which perhaps contributed to missing the majority of the clay-court swing, and suffered a nasty knee injury on grass in the Netherlands in 2009.
Baghdatis was, however, already languishing at No. 95 in the rankings when he took that spill against Raemon Sluiter (around the 3:30 mark):
No, the most accurate reason for his skid might delve from his approach to the game. Winning isn’t the most important thing to Baghdatis, it seems. Similar to Gael Monfils, being an entertainer and playing on the big stage is what has always appeared to excite Baghdatis the most.
“What I love about tennis is when there’s emotion on court,” he said. “I think they don’t get much now in tennis. Before there was (John) McEnroe, (Jimmy) Connors, Agassi, that gave so much to the sport. On the court there was always something happening.
“But now I feel it’s getting a bit boring. It’s getting a bit too much in professionalism and there’s too much focus on just winning and stuff like that. I think it should be an entertainment sport.”
When I suggest to Baghdatis that he wouldn’t be overly disappointed if his career stopped today—he could spend more time with his wife, former women’s pro Karolina Sprem, and their daughter—Baghdatis vehemently disagreed.
“That’s not true,” he said. “I love the sport. I love being in front of a crowd. If not I would not work. I just said that the reason I wouldn’t watch it at home is because it’s boring.
“You cannot tell a person he doesn’t love his job because he’s not in the Top 50.”
It’s certainly a starting point in your case, though, Marcos.
Here was his full reply to being asked what his current goals were:
“My goal is to get back to the Top 10,” he began. “But my real goal is to play tennis and enjoy the moments on court, enjoy the crowd and do the best I can.
“I think once I do that, automatically I’ll get back to the top 10.”
It’s hard to envisage Baghdatis enjoying his time on Court 10 or in qualifying with few watching, which will make his task of climbing the rankings difficult.
But, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this sentiment, I hope Baghdatis doesn’t fade into the sunset with the invariable tag of ‘one-slam wonder,’ a player who had so much more to give.
“I don’t know if he’ll get back to the Top 10,” said Gilbert. “But he’s certainly a lot better than his ranking.”