The charmer from CYPRUS

With his run to the final, this energetic fellow, all 20-year-old exuberance, with a scamp's disarming smile, has announced himself.-AP

At 14, a small-town boy had left home for France to discover himself as a player, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

Roger Federer has won the Australian Open, but the tournament belonged to Marcos Baghdatis. With his run to the final, this energetic fellow, all 20-year-old exuberance, with a scamp's disarming smile, has announced himself. Apparently the Cypriot, from the small town of Limassol, has nine uncles and 21 cousins in Melbourne, but for a while it seemed the entire city was part of his bloodline. Spectators want to identify with players, to establish some human connection with them, to take a part of them home with them, and Baghdatis, he gives of himself, he strikes the ball as cleanly as he hits the heart.

As the tournament unscrolled, the early impression given was of a clown with a racket but his chastised opponents might have insisted, surely you jest. This was no entertaining sideshow but a player of gifts, only one of them a talent to amuse. An energetic performance over Andy Roddick (No. 2 seed) earned him headlines, but lesser players will often seize one moment and next day be unable to grasp it again. Not Baghdatis. The day after the Roddick win he went on a local roller-coaster but truly needn't have, his life has resembled one anyway. But if the roller-coaster made him dizzy, his performances did not, and both against Ivan Ljubicic (No. 7 seed) and David Nalbandian (No. 4), matches won over five sets, his tennis was notable for its level-headedness. As much as Baghdatis took strength from the crowd, he found it within. He is boy to the crowd but man to his opponent.

His maturity was staggering, and then it was not. At 14, a small-town boy had left home for France to discover himself as a player, and it is a lonely journey where a teenager can either fall away or emerge an experienced, tough combatant. He is the classical 21st century player, all quickness and attrition, his groundstrokes fluent, his serve hefty, and with a sophisticated early warning system imbedded in his brain that allows him to recognise danger and react to it. But more than mere strokes, Baghdatis appears (though this will take some confirmation through the year) to relish and respond to the occasion. He believes he belongs in tennis' top echelon and while everything, he said, in this tournament was a first for him, there was enough to suggest he will last.