A top Cyprus tennis player says that the sport has taught him a lot, including strategic thinking and a good attitude. THEO PANAYIDES meets him
Spyros Charalambous is Logistics Manager at Ermes Department Stores. It’s a big job, and a demanding one. “It has to do mainly with imports, modes of transportation, then you have clearing warehousing, managing warehousing, managing stock, and of course distribution,” he tells me, sitting in the bar of the Nicosia Hilton. “But behind logistics, there is a lot of planning.” Still, we’re not here to talk about his job – because Spyros is also the No. 22 tennis player in the world.
Caveats follow, of course. For one thing, he was No. 22 in May, but an injury over the summer – while preparing for a tournament in Slovakia – means he’s now dropped to No. 67 in the latest rankings. More importantly, we’re not talking here about the ATP circuit, nor even the senior ATP circuit where Federer, Nadal and Co. will presumably end up when they get too old for Grand Slams. ATP is the Association of Tennis Professionals; Spyros, who never went pro (though he came close), is a member of the ITF, the International Tennis Federation, and is – or was – No. 22 in the Over-40 category of the ITF’s Seniors circuit. He turns 45 in March so he’ll move up a category in 2018, gaining the advantage of youth over players a few years his senior.
Admittedly, all this makes his ranking a bit less impressive – but it’s still impressive. The ITF is highly competitive, with thousands of players from all over the world including a lot of ex-pros. The top player in Spyros’ current category is Roberto Menendez Ferre, a 41-year-old Spaniard who peaked at No. 301 on the ATP circuit in the early 00s. Most top-ranked players work at jobs which allow them lots of practice time; some are professional tennis coaches. Spyros, on the other hand, only gets to go on a tennis court about once a week (though he works on “physical condition” every other day), significantly less than many of his peers who play tennis socially.
It’s his job, he explains. It’s “demanding”, and “very intensive”. Work starts early, at 7.30, and often finishes late. He has 30 people under him, and liaises constantly with other departments: “If I were to put Logistics in the human body, I would say it’s the heart.” I suspect it might also be a case of Spyros keeping a low profile when it comes to his sporting achievements. After all, having a manager who’s also a highly-ranked tennis player is exactly the sort of thing a company likes to put on its website – but he doesn’t seem to toot his own horn, at least in the workplace. We meet in the evening, and he mentions that he’s been in Paphos all day. Did the colleagues in Paphos ask how the tennis is going?
“No,” he admits with a wry smile.
Don’t they know he’s a tennis fiend?
“They know, but they don’t…” he replies – and leaves it hanging, as if to say ‘They don’t realise how big it is’.
To be honest, it’s easy to miss. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and pictured the towering physique of a serve-and-volleyer – but in fact he’s around five-foot-eight and 84 kilos, which would be slightly overweight even if he weren’t an athlete. His handshake is extremely firm, but his eyes have an anxious look; he doesn’t come across as a macho jock type. His strength as a tennis player, he explains, is “strategy”, combined with speed and a stubborn work ethic. “When I was a junior,” he tells me, thinking back to his childhood in Limassol, “every day at 5.30 I’d be out running in the stadium”. One morning it was raining hard (he was only about 12 years old at the time), and his dad suggested that he skip one day. “‘It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or snowing, I’m going!’ I said. This is the drive I had”. Spyros nods approvingly at his younger self. “Nothing comes for free. I worked hard for this”.
The work paid off. At 12, he was part of the national Cyprus tennis team; at 14, he started practising with the Davis Cup team, and played Davis Cup for a few years till he went in the army. Later, in the US, he played Division One college tennis for three years on a full athletic scholarship at Coastal Carolina University, meanwhile pursuing a degree in Business Administration. The tennis, it should be noted, wasn’t a sideline: scholarship students could only take classes in the mornings and early afternoons – because they had to be on the tennis court for three hours of practice each day, followed by an hour and a half of fitness training (there were more hours of training on Saturdays). College tennis “is a step before professionalism. It’s very tough”.
Looking back, could he have gone professional? Was he good enough?
“I could,” he replies after a pause. ‘But, if I wanted to become professional, I should’ve left Cyprus at the age of 13, maximum 14.”
There it is, the unspoken ‘what-if’ gnawing away at our conversation. As he talks of his teenage years, Spyros recalls a cheerful little six-year-old running around as a ball-boy while he practised with the Davis Cup team. That little ball-boy was Marcos Baghdatis, 12 years his junior, who did indeed go abroad to a tennis academy at 14, and later made history by becoming the first Cypriot in a Grand Slam final (the Australian Open in 2006) as well as earning some $8 million in prize money. “I think Marcos took the risk,” he replies thoughtfully when I ask if he ever looks at Baghdatis’ career and thinks ‘It could’ve been me’. “I’m very proud for Marcos, I need to say this, he’s an excellent character and very good player.”
Does he ever feel regret that he didn’t take that path?
“I don’t feel regret, it was my choice,” he replies automatically, then thinks about it: “I can’t say, because I never tried, so I’ll go with what Michael Jordan says – that you regret shots you miss, not shots that you didn’t take”. Just a few moments later, however, Spyros circles back to the subject: “Now, if I regret it, yes and no. Yes, because I never took the shot. And no, because, um” – another short pause – “I’m happy with what I have now”.
It’s a question that can never be resolved, not entirely. First and foremost, he notes, his parents didn’t have the funds to send him abroad – though admittedly the family weren’t poor (his dad was a middle-manager at the Bank of Cyprus, his mum a dressmaker specialising in haute couture), probably about on a par with the Baghdatis family. It’s true that 12-year-old Spyros set some targets for his life, which didn’t include becoming a tennis pro (in fact his main target was to study in the US on a scholarship, which is exactly what he did) – then again, it’s also true that 14-year-old Spyros won a national tournament in Greece, and was then accosted by the president of Argyroupoli tennis club who made him an offer to stay in Greece and play for his club. “‘That’s it, you’re staying,’” roared this excitable-sounding fellow. “‘You’re not going back to Cyprus. I’m calling your dad, he’ll be sending all your stuff here, you’ll be staying at my house!’. I was shocked. I was 14.”
He must’ve been spectacular, a driven young man on a tennis court. “I think it was [only] in my late 20s that I started rewarding myself”. Before that, “I was very focused. Once I achieved a target, I would go for the next one. And it was day after day, day after day”. He seems genial enough, sipping a glass of rosé in the bar of the Hilton, but “on the court I’m very competitive. As I say to the athletes I work with, ‘Take no prisoners. Once you’re on the court, be polite, be nice, show great character, be humble – but take no prisoners. Once you have someone drowning, finish him! Don’t let him come up’. Because tennis is a sport that you may be 5-0, 40-love up, and you may lose”. His favourite book, he tells me later, one he’s read “probably 15 times”, is The Art of War by Sun Tzu.
Then again, another favourite book is The Four Agreements, the self-help bestseller by Don Miguel Ruiz setting out precepts for a better life (they include ‘Be impeccable with your word’ and ‘Don’t take anything personally’). Spyros is competitive in tennis, less so in life; instead he talks fulsomely of self-help, personal growth, friendship, mentorship. I don’t know if he consciously became so positive as a way of countering life’s disappointments – including a painful divorce which he calls “the most difficult moment of my life” (he and his ex-wife divorced three years ago, after six years of marriage; they have two kids, six-year-old Giorgos and four-year-old Ioanna) – but, whatever the case, he’s very positive. He speaks more than once of “creating synergies” in his job. He’ll say things like “I love being a dad, I enjoy every moment!” or “Although my sport is very individual, I tend to be a great team player”. When he talks of tennis, he seems to treasure the friendships even more than the victories; he tells me of the players he’s met, many from the old Czechoslovakia (his best friend from college is a Slovak) like Karol Kucera or the late Jana Novotna, whom he saw when she won Wimbledon and even ‘hit with’ a few times.
Some might call Spyros a ‘nearly man’. He nearly made it to professional level, but never did. Later on, he nearly took a job at the Van Der Meer Tennis Academy in South Carolina, but instead came to Cyprus and pursued a career in logistics. Van Der Meer was where he got his coaching certificate, and the legendary Dennis Van Der Meer himself (who’d once coached Billie Jean King for the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ in 1973) asked if he wanted to stay and work there. Spyros was all set to accept, especially since Van Der Meer also talked of sponsoring him for a green card – but then he “came back to Cyprus by chance”, on vacation, and received an irresistible offer from Nicos Stephanou (whom he considers a mentor) at Frangoudi & Stephanou. Even now, the ‘nearly’ curse continues: he’s nearly a top-ranked player on the seniors’ circuit – but not quite at the very top, hampered by the strain of having to juggle tennis and a stressful corporate job.
Then again, that’s a pessimistic view of his life. Tennis has taught him a great deal, muses Spyros – but the main thing it’s taught is the value of “character”, which he defines as “being humble”, working hard and (above all, perhaps) being a calm, steady person. You can’t get too enthusiastic when you win a point in tennis, or you’ll lose concentration; you can’t beat yourself up too much when you make a mistake, either, or you’ll get irritable and make more mistakes. Spyros never had the physical build of a Sampras or Nadal, but made up for that with strategic thinking and a good attitude; his life, too, went in a different direction to (say) Baghdatis’ – but he meets it in a positive spirit, and doesn’t lose his focus by dwelling on the differences. “Things that I learned in tennis,” he smiles, “I apply them in life”.
Others benefit too: he tells me of the younger players he’s coached (and tried to mentor) in Cyprus, many of them following in his footsteps in US college tennis. Photos Photiades played at Yale; Philippe Tsangarides went to Spyros’ old alma mater of Coastal Carolina, and actually outdid his mentor by being ranked No. 1 (Spyros only managed No. 2 back in the day). He’ll often ask young players to keep a notebook and note down “life lessons,” on the basis that everything in life is a lesson – and his own life offers lessons too, if only in the ways in which we’re shaped by our choices, and must learn how to live with them.
“If you ask me now if I’d go back and change it, I would tell you that – at least I’d have taken the shot,” he says without rancour, meaning he’d have taken that excitable Greek up on his offer and moved to Greece at 14, just to try it for a couple of years. Then again, that was 30 years ago. The past is past – and the future remains full of promise: a new year, a new category, hopefully a leap up the rankings. Like logistics, tennis needs a lot of planning. He plans to lose some weight, for a start – and, since he only has time for a handful of tournaments per year, he plans to target more ‘Grade 1’ events which offer more points; and of course he also plans to practise more in 2018. “My New Year’s resolution,” says Spyros, “is to play more tennis”. Good call.