The Greatest Story Never Told – Breaking Point: Marton Fucsovics & Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon the piercing blue of an autumn sky called me to come outside and play. I would have none of it. Instead of enjoying what would likely be one of the last days of good weather in the shadow of the northern Rocky Mountains, I sat inside, watching the inevitable play out on at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, New York. It was there that Novak Djokovic put the finishing touches on a spectacular summer of tennis. As he closed in on his 14th Grand Slam title, the Belgrade born Serb was cementing his place among the greatest tennis players of all time. Long ago, he had taken the mantle of greatest Eastern European tennis player of all time. Lest there are any left questioning that honorific, consider that Djokovic has won as many Grand Slam titles as Ivan Lendl, Ilie Nastase, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin combined. His run of success is without precedent from any player in the region.

Watching Djokovic methodically dismantle Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, it was difficult to imagine how anyone could beat him with his current level of play. He would win the championship match against del Potro in straight sets, just as he had done in his four previous matches. During the tournament he lost only two sets while looking unbeatable. This was the exact opposite of how he had looked twelve days earlier. That was when Djokovic had been on the cusp of defeat in his match against the Hungarian Marton Fucsovics in the first round. The seeds of Djokovic’s future success at the tournament were sown in the fetid air on a memorable afternoon when he looked extremely vulnerable. An afternoon in which both men were on the verge of heat exhaustion, if not complete collapse.

Too hot to handle - Marton Fucsovics congratulates Novak Djokovic on his victory at the US Open

Too hot to handle – Marton Fucsovics congratulates Novak Djokovic on his victory at the US Open

A Match Played In Hell –  Stadium Court To Stadium Cauldron
On the Tuesday afternoon that Marton Fucsovics took the court against Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open I was ensconced on the sofa at my mother-in-law’s residence in Debrecen preparing to watch the match in its entirety. It was already evening in Eastern Hungary and the sun had just set over the Great Hungarian Plain as the match began. Earlier that day I had passed through Nyiregyhaza, Fucsovics hometown. I wondered how many people in that small, tidy city would be staying up to watch the match.  Tennis was not anywhere close to being one of the favorite sports in Hungary, but perhaps Fucsovics was slowly changing that. An upset win over Djokovic could go a long way in making that happen. From the way Fucsovics started the match against Djokovic, that did not seem likely. Within a few minutes he was down 0-3. He had lost his serve and looked totally overwhelmed by the occasion. That was not surprising.

Djokovic was a two time U.S. Open titlist who had played on show courts for years. Fucsovics was a newcomer to the cavernous stadium court. He looked lost until the latter part of the first set when he finally threatened to break Djokovic’s serve. His improved play was not enough as Djokovic took the first set. At this point I figured it was now or never for Fucsovics because if he fell behind in the second set, the match would be all but over. What happened next was surprising. Fucsovics began to play with the kind of confidence which had lifted him from career journeyman to a #41 world ranking in just over a year. He controlled the rallies from the outset. Djokovic, who had started the match looking invincible, now looked vulnerable. He began to spray balls in every direction except between the lines. His energy level dropped. Fucsovics took the second set rather easily.

Djokovic’s fortunes had taken a turn for the worst. He was soon calling for a bucket into which he might possibly vomit. A physician arrived to check his health. In a matter of half an hour, he had gone from looking like a sure winner, to a man who might collapse at any moment. The drop in the Serb’s level of play had as much to do with the weather as it did Fucsovics who looked to be suffering as well. The conditions on court were close to unbearable. It was 95 degrees Fahrenheit with suffocating humidity. Djokovic showed signs of labored breathing. Fucsovics looked better, but was also slathered in sweat. The court had become a cauldron.

A Moment Of Fear & Desire – The Verge Of Victory
Watching this, it suddenly struck me that Fucsovics might just pull off the upset. At this point, my imagination went into overdrive. Here I was, a long suffering fan of Hungarian tennis who might be witnessing the greatest upset by a Hungarian in tennis history. And to see it while in Hungary was more than I could ever have hoped for. I felt a moment of destiny about to arrive in Debrecen by way of the National Tennis Center in New York. A surge of adrenaline coursed through my veins. My pulse began to race at the playing of each point. I wanted this as much for myself as Marton Fucsovics. I was at the point where the fan becomes inseparable from the object of adulation, self-actualization through the actions of another. When a man sees a dream which he could never have imagined materialize before his very eyes, he is forced to confront his greatest fear, that of success and what might come next. In this case, a win for the ages.

The moment where fear and desire coalesce came in the third set. While leading 3-1 and 30-40 with Djokovic serving, Fucsovics was on the cusp of breaking the Serb for a second time in the set. This would have given him an almost insurmountable advantage. The hard hitting Hungarian played himself into a position where he had an easy forehand – in tennis parlance “a sitter” – that he should have hit for a winner. Instead, he smacked it into the middle of the net. That missed shot turned out to be the decisive turning point. Djokovic dominated from there on out. He went on to win the final ten games of the match. I hardly had time to process what happened by the time these two Eastern European tennis warriors were at the net shaking hands. A Fucsovics victory turned out to be the greatest story never told.

A Single Point On A Sultry Day  – The Winner Takes It All
Novak Djokovic dominated the U.S. Open after his close call against Marton Fucsovics. It was only after the tournament ended and I looked back at the scores of Djokovic’s matches that I realized he lost only two sets on his way to the title. Of course, one of those was to Fucsovics, who came closer than anyone else to defeating the Serb. In men’s professional tennis, no points or awards are given for coming close. There is only victory or defeat. And sometimes the difference between the two comes down to a single point on a sultry day. A day when one man reaches his breaking point and the other goes beyond it.

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