As the new season came out of the starting blocks this month the young face expected to burst into the big time belonged to Andy Murray. But the place he has carved out in today's final of the Australian Open ensures that the honour has been seized, for the moment at least, by a 20-year-old from Cyprus, Marcos Baghdatis.
Even the rocket-propelled progress of Murray through the rankings list has been eclipsed by the fashion in which the product of a sleepy village in the Troodos Mountains swashbuckled through the field in Melbourne, transforming a men's event written off beforehand as a dreary formality because of the absence through injury of Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal and the holder, Marat Safin. There was nobody, it seemed, to dispute the authority of Roger Federer, monarch of the peaks.
By eliminating, in succession, three top 10 players in Andy Roddick, Ivan Ljubicic and David Nalbandian, Baghdatis has merited his tilt. Having started 2006 at 56 in the world rankings, this former world No 1 junior will now rise to 26, whatever happens. Should it be the unthinkable, a defeat for Federer, Baghdatis will stand at 16.
Like Murray, Baghdatis has benefited by seeking his tennis education abroad. In Andy's case, it was the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Spain; for Marcos, the school of choice at the age of 13 was the one run in Paris by Patrick Mouratoglu. If the shock of transition from an island possessing just a dozen tennis clubs induced early homesickness, he overcame it with the sort of fierce determination to succeed which marks a future champion, and he identifies with the expectations placed on Murray's shoulders.
"I know Andy," he said. "I know how tough it is for him, people judging him all the time. It is not nice. But by living abroad you learn what life is about, it makes you tough, there are so many responsibilities and you are very young. When it gets hard, I think of the sacrifices people made for me. That is the motivation, my hunger. The way is long but my objectives are higher now and if I work hard I know I can become even better."
Hard work is guaranteed today against an opponent who has won the last six Grand Slam finals in which he competed, dropping just two sets in those six matches. Chasing his third major crown in succession after winning Wimbledon and the US Open in the second half of 2005, Federer is slaloming along on a hard-court winning streak of 51.
What is more, he has beaten Baghdatis three times out of three, most recently 6-4 6-3 in the quarter-finals of Doha earlier this month. While acknowledging the spectacular improvement of Baghdatis, Federer figures that such a recent confrontation as Doha provides a pointer. "Maybe he has changed something in his game, but I don't think so, time is too short. I know what to expect. I am surprised he has got so far because there are other very talented youngsters I thought would make the break before him. But he has beaten quality players and totally deserves to be in the final." The unshrinking Baghdatis agrees. "I'm very quick on my feet, I move very well on the court. I have a great eye. I see the ball very fast, I can adapt to any style of opponent. That's my key, adapting to anyone. And I have, maybe, all the shots.
"Of course, I know Roger is the best in the world. He has everything, but I need to go out there and believe in myself and in that ability to adapt. I know I can create a lot of good things and it's important I don't try to change anything just because I am playing Roger." Cyprus, hardly a hotbed of sporting excellence, is in a paroxysm of delighted disbelief as it prepares for the island's great sporting occasion. The government offered to fly Marcos' parents to Australia but they preferred to watch the televised version from their single-storey home in the village of Paramytha.
However, Marcos' older brother Petros and a cousin have travelled to Melbourne to add their voices to the raucous clamour of the Baghdatis fan club who have flourished the flag of Greece and willed their hero to ever more spectacular success at one of the world's four great tennis tournaments.
To set against that, Federer possesses a touching faith in the sportsmanship of Australian audiences. Dismissing the possibility of any underdog undertones, he says: "They love their sport here, so I expect a fair match." The Swiss genius is entitled to expect nothing less, since victory today could be the start of something big even for him - the first leg of the Grand Slam last pulled off in 1969 by Australia's very own Rod Laver.Reuse content