COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Andrea Baldini was five years old when his grandmother spotted him armed with a plastic sword, pretending he was Zorro, and took him to a fencing club.
The swashbuckling fantasy reached a whole new level for the boy from Livorno five years later when he watched fellow Italian Alessandro Puccini win foil gold at the 1996 Olympics.
"When I saw him in that final I wanted to become like him. I had his poster in my room," said Baldini, who now trains with Puccini in the Italian national team. "It is a real pleasure to understand from him how one can become a real champion."
Baldini will get a chance to realize his boyhood dream next month in Beijing. The 22-year-old has been ranked number one in the world for two years, so he is the favorite for the foil gold, as much as one can be in a sport renowned for upsets.
He will have to defeat triple world champion Peter Joppich of Germany, who beat him in the last two world championship finals.
"Yes, he's starting to be a problem," Baldini joked. "Peter is a very good champion. He is ... always ready for the big match, but also a good man outside the piste."
Other fencers vying for the Olympic title are China's Sheng Lei and Jun Zhu, Athens winner Brice Guyart of France and Baldini's team mate Salvatore Sanzo, who lost in the 2004 final.
"It is a strange competition," Baldini said. "In one day you display the work of a lifetime. There will be 10,000 variables that will determine the winner."
One dangerous opponent Baldini will not face is compatriot Andrea Cassara, bronze medalist in Athens and European champion this year, who did not qualify because Baldini and Sanzo were ranked higher. Each country is allowed up to three fencers for weapons with a team event, but only two for individual events.
Not having a foil team competition on the men's programme in Beijing means one less chance for a medal, but also allows Baldini to focus on the individual event.
"I want to have my mind free to think about my individual competition, give it all and not have regrets," he said. "I hope we can get a medal in the team competition in London (in 2012)."
This month Baldini lost in the quarter-finals of the European championships to Laurence Halsted of Britain, ranked 23 in the world.
"Maybe I went on the piste thinking about the Olympic Games, and in this sport if you don't concentrate and don't want to win more than your competitor, you lose. Hopefully it will teach me a lesson," Baldini said.
"The dream of every guy that starts to fence is to win the Olympic Games, not to be the first in the rankings."
Editing by Robert Woodward