Why Baghdatis Matters: The Importance of Being Cypriot
THE LAST half of January may prove to have been the most significant period in terms of the Cyprus Problem since the 2004 referendum on reunifying the island based on the Annan Plan. Not because of any ‘renewed talks’ between bureaucrats on each side of the Green Line; nor because of any new initiatives or interventions from the US, UK or UN; but because an unseeded 20-year old Cypriot named Marcos Baghdatis advanced to the Australian Open Final.
It may seem implausible that an affable 20-year old tennis player—who has the facial malleability and expressiveness of a standup comic, who chastises himself after bad shots with haunted heavenward gazes, and who routinely dives after impossible balls—has much to do with the Cyprus Problem, that decades-long bog of barbed wire and army camps, displaced properties and security fears. But he does. Though the military occupation of the north is the outward symptom of the Cyprus Problem, the underlying disease is an identity crisis: Cyprus suffers from a dearth of Cypriot pride and an excess of Greek and Turkish nationalism.
The bulk of the violence Cyprus has experienced in recent history is rooted in an insecurity complex (akin to the Napoleonic one) fomented by devout generals and halitotic parliamentarians. The only true Cypriot is the donkey, to use the words of former Turkish Cypriot strongman Rauf Denktash, and so it follows that the supreme bliss in this mortal coil is to be diffused into the great motherland of Greece or Turkey, depending on which side of the Green Line you fall. For decades Cypriots have faithfully obeyed their BMW-driving shepherds by waving the foreign flags, parroting the tedious slogans that have been spray painted onto crumbling walls for the past half century, and of course gingerly avoiding any associations with the word ‘Cypriot’ so as not to be frowned upon as an anti-Greek or anti-Turkish traitor.
Now enter young Baghdatis. Open a late January 2006 Cypriot newspaper and you will read something like “Hero Baghdatis has achieved what no Cypriot has ever achieved before!” referring to his riveting, not-for-cardiacs Auzzie Final advance in which he usurped three of the world’s top-ten ranked players. But he is also heroic for another equally titanic achievement: Baghdatis speaks of his love for his home country, Cyprus, without then qualifying that love by subsuming it within a mother nation. It is rare to find Cyprus-pride. The more common sentiment is reflected by the decision last month of ‘Cypriot’ singer Anna Vissi to represent Greece instead of Cyprus at the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest.
Baghdatis’ love of Cyprus is no recent phenomenon. Four years ago, when he won his Junior US Open Semifinals, delighted fans tossed Greek flags down onto the court at his feet. But 16-year old Baghdatis instead went to the stands, took a Cyprus flag from a fan and, draping it around himself, began jogging around the court. He later turned down a request to play for the French tennis federation and another to play for Greece during the Athens Olympics out of loyalty to Cyprus. And when he could no longer wear the Cyprus flag on the front of his shirt due to a new Adidas sponsorship, he made sure that the shirt he wore was in the white and orange-gold colors of the Cyprus flag.
Baghdatis is not Cypriot in the ‘purebred’ sense. His father moved from Lebanon to Cyprus in 1973 to work at a cement factory, later marrying a Greek Cypriot and being christened Christos. And young Marcos himself left Cyprus when he was 14 to train at a tennis academy in France. It is a strange fact that those who live outside Cyprus for a large period, or those who immigrate to Cyprus, often feel more Cypriot-in-the-bones than lifelong islanders. It is likely due to the thoroughness with which Greek and Turkish nationalism engulf the island.
Baghdatis created a furor in the tennis world after he knocked out world number three Andy Roddick from the Australian Open (the fact that an unseeded player named ‘Baghdatis beat the top US player could have made good propaganda for the resistance in Iraq, but as far as I know no one in Iraq has picked up on it). Suddenly the words “Cypriot” and “Cyprus” were on the back page of newspapers all over the world.
The international attention took Cyprus by surprise. Like all small places, the news in Cyprus ends at its borders; explosions in Iraq or floods in New Orleans are mere background to the crucial daily pontifications of the government spokesman. Likewise, the local news in Cyprus is generally of no interest anywhere else. The rest of the world does not care about the 13th round of negotiations between the Cyprus Airways Board and the unions, or the potato farmers’ latest plans to descend upon the Presidential in tractors, or the 85th article in five months explaining that the investigations into the August 14 Helios plane crash in a mountainside in Greece that killed all 121 on board are—just in case you were wondering since yesterday—still underway.
But suddenly unseeded Cypriot Baghdatis knocks out three world top-ten players—Andy Roddick, Ivan Ljubicic and, after a two-set deficit, David Nalbandian—to make it to the Australian Open Final, earning him the titles ‘never-say-die Baghdatis,’ the ‘giant-killer’ and ‘the smiling assassin.’ Suddenly, the world was talking about this new flamboyant talent from… Cyprus. It may at last be the beginning of the end of Cypriots having to gently explain that, no, Cyprus bears no relation to the tree or to the Florida theme park and, no, we are not called Cyprusians.
Cypriots have never before given a damn about tennis. Sporting passion on the island has always been for football. But after Baghdatis beat Andy Roddick and advanced to the quarterfinals, the island, or at least the Greek Cypriot side, went into a tennis mania, though it was mostly a Baghdatis mania. His success may in fact help to break the stranglehold that political parties currently wield in athletics since, unlike with Cypriot football teams, tennis players are not affiliated with a certain party. By the time Baghdatis upset two more top-10 players to advance to the final to challenge world number one Roger Federer, the young man had became a hero, a celebrity and, as the government spokesman called him, a ‘worthy ambassador.’
There aren’t many internationally recognizable Cypriots. For the real luminaries one must go back a few thousand years. There you find the philosophical, mythological, and biblical heavyweights like stoic Zeno of Kitium, lust goddess Aphrodite, and never-say-die Lazarus, who while not Cypriot by birth, could be considered Cypriot by rebirth, since he moved to Cyprus and became Kittim bishop after his resurrection.
But Cyprus does have its modern pin-ups. Archbishop Makarios, Rauf Denktash, Cat Stevens, George Michael and the most recent addition, Marcos Baghdatis, are a few who come to mind. Of those five, Baghdatis seems the closest to a Cypriot patriot. In part this is by process of elimination. Makarios was more of a Hellenist than a Cypriot, while Denktash, with his memorable donkey assertion, was more of a pan-Turkist; Cat Stevens, who soon became Yusuf Islam, felt more loyalties to the Muslim nation than the Cypriot one; and George Michael, though a proud Cypriot in his early days, had a falling out with the island upon realizing that Cypriots, like their cousins to the west, may rhapsodize about the greatness and glory of the ancient Greeks, but they do not approve of all of their practices, especially their pedagogical method.
It is hard to describe just how exciting and nerve-racking Baghdatis’ last few games were for Cypriots. Baghdatis’ mother developed stomach pains from the stress, which got so severe after her son collapsed with a leg cramp in the fourth set against Federer that she had to be rushed to a clinic. Even the Cypriot tennis announcers, who are supposed to at least maintain the illusion of unbiased reporting, were calling Baghdatis “our Marcos,” pleading for Federer to commit errors, shouting jubilantly when Federer did error, and regularly appealing to God and Mother Mary. But at least there was no pretense about it. At one point one of the announcers even asked forgiveness of his viewers for having lost all vestiges of professionalism.
But the announcers were mild compared to the average viewer in Cyprus. I watched the final with about two-dozen friends and relatives. For the sake of brevity, here is an example of how just one of them—Kosta—responded on any given point:
Baghdatis bounces the ball for his first serve. “Come on Marco, my bird, my braveheart,” says Kosta, sitting just in front of me. Baghdatis nets it. Kosta bows his head and crosses himself three times. Second serve is in, Federer returns it, Marcos hits a short crosscourt backhand. “Not so short!” Kosta cries. Federer goes down the line, Marcos returns on the run and Federer, now at the net, coolly volleys a winner. “You stinking, shit-covered frigid ass!” Kosta cries at Federer, thrusting an open hand like a karate chop towards the screen. The announcer, meanwhile, is saying that exhaustion has finally caught up to Baghdatis and it’s looking like the match will go to Federer (this is Eurosport now, so no pro-Baghdatis bias). “Shut up! What do you know!” Kosta cries in response. Baghdatis is up for his first serve. “Come on, Baghdatara,” Kosta says, then goes silent and, bowing his head, crosses himself three times…
I have never before felt such nerves over an athletic event I was not competing in, nor ever been so lastingly affected by the outcome. I am still haunted by the second set (anyone who saw the match knows what I mean, oh cruel universe). Never again can I mock others for the despair and ecstasy that a televised sports event can induce in them without considering myself a hypocrite.
Despite the loss to Federer, Cyprus celebrated, with some even taking to the streets after the match. In his village “Paramytha” (meaning ‘fairytale,’ appropriately) one could hear the jubilant shooting of rifles. The celebrations continue a week later. Baghdatis was due to arrive at the Larnaca airport about two hours ago (4 pm, February 4). I imagine it has been quite an event seeing that the Larnaca mayor called on the people of Larnaca—of which there are about 65,000—to show up at the airport.
To catapult into tennis headlines Baghdatis had to defy more odds than most. He is one of those rare tennis players who rose, not only out of tennis backwater Cyprus, but also from a working-class background. Even after becoming junior world number one, he received practically no help from the government (which is now inviting him to the Presidential) for his huge tennis Academy debts. Their only award for him was a mandatory military term that would interrupt his tennis career. The government granted him a postponement only after two newspapers on the island—the Cyprus Mail and Politis—made a stink about it.
Despite the lack of help, Baghdatis continued to wear his Cyprus colors and wave his Cyprus flag. Maybe he held no grudges against the Cyprus government, or maybe he could make the distinction between the state and the country, between the bureaucrats and the populace, a distinction not commonly made in Cyprus, especially when referring to certain neighboring countries.
After holding up his runner-up silver plate, which as my cousin said, would be good for serving kourabiedes (traditional Greek pastries), Baghdatis thanked everyone in Cyprus who was watching him. He did not make a distinction as to what kind of Cypriots. It may seem a minor point but it is important. I know Turkish Cypriots who wept when Baghdatis lost to Federer precisely because of his staunch Cypriotness. Baghdatis matters precisely because, in an island in which ethnic fervor has paved the way for troops and real estate developers to muscle their way about, we need more smiling proud Cypriots.
It would be a mistake to think that Baghdatis snubs Greece. Baghdatis has his blue-and-white Hellas fan club who attend his matches and infuriate his opponents with their football-style rowdiness, which include weird chants like “Hey Marcos, you’re crazy, you’re crazy with you’re white t-shirt” and more mainstream political chants like “Greece OLE Cyprus OLE Enosis OLE Enosis OLE Enosis OLE” (ENOSIS means the union of Greece and Cyprus).
Baghdatis may revel in his entourage and he reciprocates their support with free tickets, but that does not mean he shares all of their sentiments. Of course, there is a kinship between Greek Cypriots and Greeks, just as there is between Turkish Cypriots and Turks (and, though less recognized, between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots), which has deep historical roots and is reflected in the language, religion, etc. But though Baghdatis or any other Cypriot may clink beer mugs with his Greek friends and exult over Greece’s victory in the 2004 Euro, it does not mean that he must say he is a Greek first and a Cypriot second, or that ‘Greek Cypriot’ is just a synonym for ‘Greek’.
Nationalism is an ugly word and an even uglier thing, but Cyprus, which must surely be one of the most nationalistic places on earth, would not be harmed by a little more of it—just so long as it is not of the Turkish or Greek variety. A few more Cyprus Republic flags, a few more swellings of Cypriot pride, a few more patriotic ambassadors like Baghdatis and that invasive species known as the Cyprus Problem might finally bugger off for good.
The donkey is not the only true Cypriot. But even if it were, better to be a proud donkey than an ass trying to be a stallion.
*To see a slideshow of my photos relating to this essay click here
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