The Ascension of Hungary – Marton Fucsovics & The Davis Cup Defeat Of Russia

On Sunday, September 17th the Hungarian Davis Cup team qualified for the 2018 World Group in a stunning upset over a heavily favored Russian team. Boisterous fans urged the home side on to victory. Seeing the cheering throngs left me wondering how many of those same fans were in the southeastern Hungarian city of Szeged in April 2014 when Hungary was mired in the lowest level of Davis Cup play. Likely very few and for good reason. Hungary had not been in World Group play since 1996, years of listless results had led to a downward spiral that found the team relegated to the Europe/Africa Zone III group. Zone III is the netherworld of the Davis Cup. The matches are best of three rather than best of five sets and the ties are decided by the first nation to win two matches. This zone is the preserve of such tennis lightweights as Andorra, Albania and Armenia. It was the latter nation that Hungary faced first on a spring day three years ago in Szeged.

Hungary vs. Russia - a Davis Cup tie to remember

Hungary vs. Russia – a Davis Cup tie to remember

Marton Fucsovics played a vital role for a victorious Hungarian team that triumphed over Armenia, Liechtenstein and Georgia in quick succession without the loss of a single set. In 2015, the Hungarian team completed another trifecta of victories while advancing to Group One. Progress stalled in July 2016 when the Hungarians suffered a defeat at the hands of Slovakia, only to avenge that earlier this year with an upset win over the Slovaks in Bratislava. All of these victories were led by the play of Fucsovics, who was in the process of becoming a one man Davis Cup team. Of course, there were others who contributed as well, specifically Attila Balazs. It would be Fucsovics and Balazs who were picked to play all five ties against Russia in the World Group playoffs this past week.

One Man Gang – Magnificent Marton
Though enjoying home court advantage, the Hungarians still looked overmatched. The Russian team was young, eager and talented. Their oldest player was just 21 years old. All three of Russia’s top players were ranked in the top sixty-one in the world. Conversely, the Hungarians did not have any players in the top 100. What the Hungarians did have on their side was years of experience. They also had Fucsovics who came into the tie having won his 12 of his last 13 Davis Cup matches. He had single handedly put the team on his shoulders in an upset win over Slovakia back in February. Since that time he had slipped into (and back out of) the top 100 for the first time ever. He was playing well coming into the tie, as was his countryman Attila Balazs. Nevertheless, no one thought the Hungarian team capable of beating Russia and for good reason, Hungary had lost to Russia (or the Soviet Union) all six times they faced off in the Davis Cup.

A dynamic doubles duo - Marton Fucsovics & Attila Balazs

A dynamic doubles duo – Marton Fucsovics & Attila Balazs

This time would be different. The Hungarians had several advantages, not only were they playing at home, but they chose to play the tie on slow red clay. Both Fucsovics and Balazs had played the week before on the surface at a challenger in Genoa, Italy. While Andrey Rubelev and Karen Khachanov, Russia’s two top players, had been playing in the United States on hard courts for their last several tournaments. Experience was also a decisive factor in the outcome. The 19-year old Rubelev had never played a Davis Cup match before on red clay. Between the two of them, Fucsovics and Balazs had played three times as many ties The surface advantage coupled with an edge in experience for Hungary can hardly be overstated. They needed all the help they could get to overcome the raw talent of the Russians.  Fucsovics did just this in the first tie. He raced out to a two sets to love lead over the much higher ranked Rubelev. He then hung on to win the fifth set. This victory was crucial because Attila Balazs was unable to eke out a victory over Khachanov. With the match tied at a set apiece, a long and tense third set tiebreaker proved decisive when Khachanov won it 14 – 12. He then easily closed out the match 6-1 in the fourth set.

Brilliance In Budapest – Overcoming The Odds…And Fatigue
Both the victorious Fucsovics and the defeated Balazs looked like to be physically exhausted after the first day. Fatigue was an issue since both men were slated to play every match in the tie. If Hungary lost the doubles, it was likely that a 1 – 2 deficit would be too much to overcome. Fucsovics and Balazs did not let the situation come to that. They played a splendid match, returning serve much better than their Russian foes to win in straight sets. The victory gave Hungary two chances to win the tie on the third and final day. Their best opportunity would come in the fourth rubber as Fucsovics faced Karen Khachanov. Though Khachanov was the highest ranked player on either team at #32, he had struggled in Davis Cup play, with a less than stellar 2-3 record in singles. This, along with Fucsovics form, was enough to give the Hungarians a realistic chance of an improbable victory.

The moment of glory - Marton Fucsovics celebrates winning the final point for Hungary

The moment of glory – Marton Fucsovics celebrates winning the final point for Hungary

Fucsovics did the best thing he possibly could by starting the match strong, winning the first set 7-5. Uniquely, he won more points on his second serve than his first. He also returned well enough to gain four break points, two of which he converted. His fast start whipped the crowd into a frenzy which was only matched by the biting, windy conditions that beset the Kopazsi Dam facility in Budapest. Fucsovics continued to play at the highest level as he took the next two sets and match. Hungary was finally  through to the World Group. Twenty-one years of futility and frustration evaporated in a matter of moments. The Hungarians had done the unexpected and in the process put their nation back on the international tennis map. Can they continue their winning ways in the 2018 World Group? It is improbable, but not impossible. Led by the rise of Marton Fucsovics as a Davis Cup stalwart, Hungary’s play since 2014 has exceeded all expectations. Whether or not their ascension continues largely depends on the play of Fucsovics.

A Victory For A Nation That No Longer Exists – Ivan Lendl & Czechoslovakia’s 1980 Davis Cup Title

The pressure must have been immense. A one party state was relying on a not quite one man team to win the Davis Cup, men’s tennis most prized team competition. The nation was Czechoslovakia and the year was 1980. The Czechoslovaks had come close to winning the Cup just five years earlier when they were defeated by the brilliance of Bjorn Borg who led Sweden to a 3-2 victory in the 1975 final. Now they were back in the final playing against a veteran Italian squad. The final was in Prague, but the Czechoslovak number two singles player, Tomas Smid, got off to a poor start against the uber-talented and temperamental Adriano Panatta, losing the first two sets. He then began to claw his way back into the match. At the same time a small, but vocal group of three hundred Italian fans cheered on their side.

As the match grew closer, tempers flared in the stands. The Czechoslovak police warned the Italians to behave themselves. A ruckus ensued in which a fan bit one of the police. In true communist fashion, the fan was taken away for what was likely to be a good beating behind closed doors. At this point the match took a wild turn. Panatta stopped playing as a form of protest. While the officials were trying to decide what to do next a call came in from Rome. It seemed that the fan who had been taken off was a member of the Italian Communist Party. This was no way to treat a fellow comrade. He was soon led back to his seat and play resumed. Unfortunately for Panatta the tide had turned. Smid came roaring back to win the match in five sets. Czechoslovakia now led 1-0 with the man who had carried the team through to the final due to play the second match. Ivan Lendl was just beginning to realize his immense talent. The 1980 Davis Cup was the start of even greater things to come for him.

Czechoslovakia's 1980 Davis Cup team

Czechoslovakia’s 1980 Davis Cup team

Advent Of The Modern Game – The Rise Of Lendl
Ivan Lendl was a man born to play tennis, coming from a family steeped in the game. Both his parents were excellent players. At one time his mother was the number two female player in Czechoslovakia. Lendl’s game matured at an early age. With his tall, lean frame he could generate a massive amount of power, especially off the forehand side. Coupled with a heavy first serve, the hatchet faced Czech would pound opponents into submission. The advent of power tennis in the modern game really started with Lendl. Add to this the fact that he was a workhorse who loved to play tournaments and Lendl’s ascendance to the upper echelons of the sport was assured.  He played an incredible number of matches. In 1980 he went 105-25 in singles and 39-19 in doubles. That means Lendl played 188 matches in a single year, on average one professional level match every two days. Ten of those matches were in the 1980 Davis Cup and all ten were victories.

Lendl was the linchpin of Czechoslovakia’s 1980 team. This was a strange turn of events, since his record in Davis Cup prior to that year was a desultory 3-5. He began this Davis Cup with a bit of luck. In the first two ties, the Czechoslovaks faced France and Romania, neither of which had their top players available. Yannick Noah was injured and Ilie Nastase was serving one of his recurrent suspensions for bad behavior. Lendl breezed through these first two ties, winning all nine sets he played. In the semifinals, Argentina offered a much stiffer test since the tie would be played in Buenos Aires on slow red clay. The Argentines sported two of the world’s top players in Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc. Lendl had never defeated either of them. He had already played Vilas three times on red clay earlier in the year, failing to win a single set. With Czechoslovakia losing the first match, it was critical that Lendl prevail. Surprisingly he did, winning three long, tough sets. The next day he teamed with Smid for another straight sets victory over Vilas and Clerc in doubles. Then on the last day Lendl faced Clerc, who he had also lost to three times without taking a set. He managed to overcome the past, silencing a raucous Argentinian crowd as he beat Clerc in four sets. Lendl’s game soared in the aftermath of this upset victory. He won five tournaments in October and November before taking several weeks off to prepare for the Final against Italy.

The personification of power tennis - Ivan Lendl in the 1980 Davis Cup Final

The personification of power tennis – Ivan Lendl in the 1980 Davis Cup Final

The Weight Of A Nation On His Shoulders – For Nation & Ideology
Once again Lendl would come face to face with his recent past. A year earlier, Czechoslovakia had played Italy in the 1979 semifinals on red clay at the Foro Italico in Rome. After Smid eked out a five set victory in the first match, Lendl split the first two sets with Adriano Panatta. Then the Italian star ran off twelve straight games, a double bagel to win the match. In the fourth match, Lendl blew a one set lead and lost an excruciatingly close battle to Corrado Barrazzuti 7-5 in the fifth set. It had been a harsh lesson in failing to deal with the pressure of Davis Cup play. There were several favorable circumstances for Lendl coming into the 1980 final. The tie would be played before a home crowd in Prague. The Czechoslovaks chose a fast indoor carpet which favored Lendl’s brand of power tennis. Despite the antics and drama of the first match Smid had given the home side a 1-0 lead. Now Lendl took the court with the weight of a nation on his shoulders.

To the communist government of Czechoslovakia, the Davis Cup was a far more important event than any other tennis tournament. This was a team event, a communal competition which they could use to showcase the superiority of the communist system. At least that was what the powers that be in Czechoslovakia wanted the world to believe. Lendl’s performance did not disappoint them. After losing the first set against Barrazutti he put on a devastating display of powerful baseline tennis. Over the last three sets he allowed the Italian only five games. He then teamed with Smid in doubles. They overcame a two sets to one deficit against Panatta and Paolo Bertolucci. The Czechoslovak duo prevailed 6-4 in the fifth set. For the first and what would turn out to be only time, Czechoslovakia were Davis Cup champions.

The 1980 Davis Cup Champions - Czechoslovakia

The 1980 Davis Cup Champions – Czechoslovakia (Credit: Interlaken)

Forget About It – A Czechoslovakian Championship
The government was satisfied, Lendl was a rising star and Eastern European tennis was second to none, at least in 1980. Oddly Lendl would revert back to lackluster performances in the ensuing years of Davis Cup. He stopped playing in Cup competition altogether after 1985 and moved to the United States. He would become an American citizen in 1992. Czechoslovakia was dissolved a year later and memories of their 1980 Davis Cup title largely forgotten.  At the time, the victory was a huge breakthrough for Lendl and his nation, but from today’s perspective it seems more like an aberration, a victory for a nation that no longer exists.

A Star Is Slowly Born – Marton Fucsovics At #99 : Consumed By A Dream

Dreams are intensely personal experiences. They usually take place late at night in a sleep-induced state of altered consciousness. There is something both magical and unreal about them. Afterwards we awake, wondering if the dream was real. Of course, the dream was real in the sense that it occurred, but what happened in the dream only happened in our mind, not in reality. I just experienced the opposite effect, a dream that came true in reality, but that I could never quite conceive of in my mind until it actually took place. The dream occurred in broad daylight, on Monday July 17th, when the newest version of the world rankings for the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour was released. For the first time ever, Hungarian Marton Fucsovics entered the top 100.

As the self-appointed personal record keeper of Fucsovics I felt a wave of elation, a euphoric shiver shot through me. It was only a bit later that I felt a bit of shame. The shame fell upon me because I knew that I had not been a true believer. I never really could imagine that Fucsovics would break into the top 100. His new world ranking had been as much a shock as it was a delight. Nevertheless, Fucsovics had reached this personal milestone with or without my belief. Such an achievement calls for celebration and retrospection. It is time to take a closer look at how Fucsovics got to where he is at today.

Marton Fucsovics - ascended to the Top 100 last week

Marton Fucsovics – ascended to the Top 100 last week

The Man From Nyrigehaza – The Long Road In Retrospect
Marton Fucsovics is not only one of the best Hungarian tennis players of the professional era, but most certainly the greatest player to ever hail from the eastern Hungarian city of Nyrigehaza. This is an unlikely place for a pro tennis player to come from. Most of Hungary’s other pro players came from the Budapest area. I have spent a fair amount of time in Nyrigehaza and must confess that I have never seen any tennis courts or sports facilities other than the ubiquitous soccer fields which can be found everywhere in Hungary. This makes Fucsovics achievement all the more impressive. When he first started smacking balls at the age of five with his father, few would have thought that exactly twenty years later he would be in the top 100. Obviously many of those close to him spotted his talent early on. He impressed with excellent results as a junior in 2010, with a Wimbledon championship and semifinal showings at the Australian and U.S. Opens.

Fucsovics joined the tour in 2011. It took him a couple of years to rise out of the lonely and lowly ranks of the satellite tour. To get from the 900’s to 300’s meant playing tiny events from the Czech Republic to China in an often futile search to procure coveted ranking points. This must have taken an incredible amount of self-belief. Imagine how Fucsovics felt after losing to #1027th ranked qualifier Chuwan Wang in the first round of a Chinese satellite event in 2011 or the indignity of suffering a loss to #1340th ranked Dane Marc Ferrigno in Israel. Slowly ever so slowly, Fucsovics clawed his way up the rankings. He reached the top 300 in 2013 and the top 200 in 2014. Then his ranking stalled out. For the next two years he seesawed between the #150 to #250 range. By the spring of 2016, Fucsovics looked like he would be forever stuck playing challenger events.

For the record - #99 ranked Marton Fucsovics

For the record – #99 ranked Marton Fucsovics

A Whole New Level – Fucsovics Rising
At 24 years old, he had reached an age when most men’s tennis pros begin to reach their peak, the problem was that Fucsovics had played enough matches through the years to provide a representative sample of just how far he could ascend in the rankings. It looked like he had topped out. That was until the improbable happened. Starting in May 2016, Fuscosvics began to produce good results on the Challenger tour with a startling amount of consistency. Over the last half of that year, he made one Challenger tournament final, two semifinals and four quarterfinals at such exotic locales as Prostelov, Recanati and Segovia. These results were a harbinger of better things to come. After losing three of his first five matches in 2017, Fucsovics went on another run. With two titles and a runner-up finish, he raised his ranking to #109. This was where he found himself last week in the Braunschweig Challenger in Germany. He knew that a good showing just might be enough to push him into the top 100. The pressure was on, especially since his first opponent was one of the better players in the draw, Guido Pella, an Argentine, who was the 8th seed. Fucsovics squeaked by 10 -8 in a first set tiebreaker, then lost the second set before breaking Pella multiple times in the third set to win the match.

In his next two matches, he romped over lower ranked opponents yielding only nine games. That put him in the semifinals against #500 ranked Nicola Kuhn. On paper it looked like an easy victory for the Hungarian, but matches are not won or lost based on rankings. Kuhn’s ranking was deceptive. At seventeen years old, he was only playing in his second Challenger event ever. He even had to qualify for the main draw. Fucsovics lost the first set, but pulled even by winning the second. It came down to a handful of points where the younger Kuhn was a bit more aggressive as he took the match in three sets and went on to win the tournament. As for Fucsovics, his semifinal finish was just enough to pull him eight spots higher in the world rankings. He entered the week ranked 99th, a dream come true!

A dream come true - Marton Fucsovics became the first Hungarian men's tennis player in the top 100 since 2003

A dream come true – Marton Fucsovics became the first Hungarian men’s tennis player in the top 100 since 2003

A New Ceiling – The Window Of Opportunity
The tennis world barely batted an eye. Players come and go in the ATP top 100 every week, though Hungarians are much rarer. Fucsovics became the first Hungarian men’s player in the top 100 since Attila Savolt in March 2003. A 14-year drought has been broken, at least for now. It is likely that Fucsovics will fall back several places after this week. He is due to lose 33 ranking points from last year’s semifinal finish at Recanti. Nonetheless, he has an excellent opportunity in the coming months to stabilize his position. The question will be whether he can win at the ultimate level, the ATP World Tour. His record in the main draw of Tour level events is a desultory 3-10. On the other hand, Fucsovics has never played so consistently well before in his career. An even greater breakthrough may be yet to come. He can always dream and it would be wrong to doubt him. I know this from personal experience.

The Personal Record Keeper Of Marton Fucsovics – Confessions Of Fanaticism: A Discovery Of Glory

Many years ago, I recall reading an article in Tennis Magazine that mentioned a hopelessly eccentric tennis fanatic who claimed to be the personal record keeper of Marian Vajda. Vajda was a good, but not great professional tennis player from Czechoslovakia who won a couple of second tier clay court tournaments on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour. The fact that any person saw fit to call themselves Vajda’s “personal record keeper” was bizarre in the extreme.  I often wondered just what kind of person would give themselves such a title. I imagined some lost soul who had latched onto Vajda’s tennis career as something they could use to channel a tendency toward obsessiveness. There was something endearing about such a person, the kind of true believer who lives and dies by Vajda’s results in obscure tournaments such as the Bari Open. The article began a secret ambition for me that I too might one day find refuge in an obscure tennis obsession. When I decided to follow Hungarian men’s tennis players that dream began to materialize, albeit a rather harsh one filled with many more losses than wins. Then quite suddenly, over the past few months I finally found glory in the play of Marton Fucsovics.

Marton Fucsovics reigned supreme at the Ilkley Challenger - earning him direct entry to Wimbledon

Marton Fucsovics reigned supreme at the Ilkley Challenger – earning him direct entry to Wimbledon

A Fickle Disorder –The Perils Of Promise
I must confess that my support of Marton Fucsovics and his climb in the ATP rankings has been somewhat of a fickle disorder this year. Fucsovics, the top ranked Hungarian men’s professional tennis player, is the great hope of long suffering fans of Hungarian tennis. In early February, Fucsovics sported flashes of the promise he had shown long ago when he won the 2010 Wimbledon Junior Championships. After turning pro, Fucsovics’ highest ranking had been #135, which he reached during the fall of 2014. Since that time he has been stuck in neutral, good enough to play consistently at the challenger level, but from from becoming an Tp World Tour stalwart. Then in February, Fucsovics caught fire by first leading Hungary to a road upset over a heavily favored Slovakia in Bratislava, then charging all the way to the final of a challenger in Budapest. Hope sprang anew. I was almost ready to anoint Fucsovics heir to the legacy of Balacs Taroczy.

That was until Fucsovics proved himself to be more worthy of comparisons to Attila Savolt, in other words someone with a strange name and a not so top 100 game. He tried and failed to qualify for several ATP world tour events. He mixed in acceptable losses to tour regulars such as Fernando Verdasco and Benoit Paire with more depressing defeats against the likes of Alexander Bublik, Filip Krajinovic and Stefano Napolitano. Fucsovics was well on his way once again to tennis oblivion. When he showed up to play at a challenger in Vicenza, Italy at the end of May Fucsovics had lost 11 of his past 19 matches. That was when a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity, Fucsovics suddenly began playing the best tennis of his career. He won two challengers – matching his career total – in the space of just three weeks. It was an amazing transformation, the unexpected nature of which made it all the more surprising.

Taking Advantage – Rising To The Challenger
Fucsovics had only played a single match at Vicenza prior to the 2017 tournament.  In that lone appearance he had lost in the first round. This time he took advantage of a fortuitous draw where he faced two qualifiers and a wild card entry in his first three matches. He did not face anyone ranked above him until the final. His opponent in that match was also an ethnic Hungarian who is a Serbian national, the up and coming Laslo Djere. The match was a close run affair with Djere taking the first set in a tiebreak. In the second set, Fucsovics barely held on to force another tiebreak. He then saved two match points before finally winning the set. This effectively broke Djere’s will. Fucsovics was then able to run away with the third set. He was a champion on the challenger circuit for the first time since 2013.

The next week Fucsovics was forced to abruptly change his strategy as he transitioned to grass courts. At the ATP World Tour level Stuttgart event he qualified for the main draw, where he lost in the first round. He then traveled to Ilkley in Great Britain. Fusovics had never played a challenger tournament on grass before this event. The first time turned out to be a charm for Fucsovics. In his first round match he defeated the tournament’s number one seed, Victor Estrella. This meant he took over Estrella’s draw. Fucsovics soon hit his stride, winning his final three matches of the tournament without the loss of a set. It was his second challenger title in a span of just fourteen days. His ranking soared to an all-time high of #107. Better yet, his victory at Ilkley earned him a spot in the main draw of Wimbledon.

Fucsovics won the 2010 Wimbledon Junior Singles Title - a harbinger of greater things to come

Fucsovics won the 2010 Wimbledon Junior Singles Title – a harbinger of greater things to come

The Journey To Become A Journeyman – Leaping From The Fringes
Fucsovics’ sudden success seemingly came out of nowhere. He is 25 years old and has been toiling away in the minor leagues of the tour for seven years now. His rise was unforeseen, but with the two challenger titles he has given his followers new hope. How far can he go? A few wins at Wimbledon or another good result at a challenger event would put Fucsovics into the top 100, making him the first Hungarian since what seems like time immemorial to achieve that benchmark.  His leap from the fringes of challenger level events to rising journeyman has been sudden and improbable, the fall as Fucsovics well knows can happen just as fast. No one has been more surprised by his recent results than the handful of fanatics who closely follow Fucsovics results. Outside of his family, friends and coach, I just might be the lone Fucsovics acolyte on earth. If this Hungarian hero of mine keeps up his winning ways I just might have to anoint myself as the personal record keeper of Marton Fucsovics. If someone could do it for Marian Vajda, then I can certainly do it for Marton Fucsovics.

Genius Cannot Be Taught – The Mystery Of Miloslav Mecir: A Sly Slovakian

During the Cold War sports stars from Eastern Bloc nations would mysteriously appear from behind the Iron Curtain.  Out of seemingly nowhere a world class athlete would arrive on the scene. They would soon prove a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Due to the heavily censored nature of state-controlled media in the Eastern Bloc very few people in the west had any idea of such athletes until they made their mark. In the mid-1980’s a new star suddenly appeared on the men’s professional tennis tour from Czechoslovakia, a mercurial talent with a game unlike any seen before or since. The player’s name was Miloslav Mecir, also known by the nickname of “The Big Cat” because of his effortless court coverage.

Mecir had the ability to create angles that expanded the definition of tennis geometry. He had a limitless imagination and incredible court vision which helped him to construct mind bending rallies. His backhand was a work of art. The smoothness and fluidity with which he hit the stroke allowed him to disguise his shots. He tied his opponents in knots and left them tripping over their own feet. Mecir would consistently hit the ball behind them, to the point that by mid-match opponents would be utterly baffled. His game could lull them almost to sleep. It was the professional tennis equivalent of a strong sedative. That was up until the point Mecir’s opponents suddenly realized the match was all but lost. They had been lulled into playing Mecir’s game, a losing proposition for sure. The Big Cat was an original in every sense of the word.

Miloslav Mecir - celebrates one of his 11 career titles

Miloslav Mecir – celebrates one of his 11 career titles (Credit: Anefo Croes, RC- Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo)

An Argument With Himself – The Mentally Fragile Moment
My most enduring memory of Mecir is just as strange as his game. In 1989 I had the displeasure of watching Mecir’s first round meltdown at the French Open against the Frenchman Thierry Tulanse. Tulanse was a baseliner who relied on his heavy topspin groundstrokes, but had little else in the way of a game that could damage Mecir. Tulanse was a dirt baller in tennis parlance who was on the downside of his career. Mecir was favored to win the match and promptly took the first set without much of a problem. He then proceeded to fall completely apart. Mecir began to argue over line calls, something he rarely did. This would be followed by arguments mostly with himself.

Mecir tried insanely risky shots, such as an attempted `overhead smash that he tried to spike into the crowd while standing almost parallel with the net. It hit the top of the tape and landed out. As the match went on his play grew increasingly listless. He would rally for a while and then suddenly hit a low percentage shot that had little chance of success. I recall Mecir running his hand through his hair, grumbling while wandering around the baseline and staring at the chair umpire for no reason in particular. The usually imperturbable Slovak was showing signs of increasing mental fragility. He walked to changeovers with his head down and shoulders slumped. It was not long before he was walking to the net to shake the hand of the victorious Tulanse.

Miloslav Mecir with his wooden racket in 2016

Miloslav Mecir with his wooden racket in 2016

An Original In Every Sense Of The Word – Genius Cannot Be Taught
Mecir with his head hung low was not the image I would have preferred to remember of a man who was a tennis magician. It would have been much better to recall the countless times he was victorious over the large contingent of Swedish players that occupied the top ten during the 1980’s. Mecir was deeply feared by them, defeating the likes of Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Anders Jarryd, Joachim Nystrom and others twice as often as they prevailed against him. Wilander once remarked after a particularly humiliating loss to Mecir that: “It feels like you’re doing everything you can and it’s still all up to him.” In 1988, the year Wilander won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments, his lone defeat was a clinical destruction at the hands of Mecir in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. The Big Cat only allowed Wilander seven games in an effortless victory over one of the greatest players of all time, having one of the greatest seasons. Mecir could dominate the very best without seemingly breaking a sweat.

One of Mecir’s most memorable matches was his upset of Boris Becker in the 1986 U.S. Open. Becker had once remarked that during warmups he wondered how someone with Mecir’s game could even be on the pro tour. By the end of the match though, Becker had no idea how to play, let alone beat Mecir. And Mecir defeated Becker using a Snauwert racquet that looked like it belonged to the pre-modern game. Mecir was the last player to make the final of a Grand Slam with a wooden racquet, at the 1986 U.S. Open. At that same tournament all four finalists on the men’s and women’s sides were from Czechoslovakia, but Mecir was different in this regard because he hailed from Slovakia, while the others were all Czechs. He was and still is the greatest Slovakian player of all time. Mecir also stood out because he did not have a coach. That was probably for the best, since his unorthodox game was unlike any other. Genius cannot be taught.

Miloslav Mecir - tennis magician

Miloslav Mecir – tennis magician

A Game Of Imagination – Angles Of Artistry
Just as fast as Mecir had ascended to the upper echelons of the game, so too was his fall just as precipitate. In 1990, at the age of twenty-six he was forced to retired due to back problems. The fact that he left the game at an age when most players were reaching their peaks left many in the tennis world wondering how Mecir would have combatted the up and coming big hitters who would come to rule the game during the 1990’s. Would Mecir have been able to deftly turn the power of Sampras, Agassi and Courier against them? Tennis fans would never learn the answer? It would have been fascinating to watch the man who had blunted the power of Becker and Lendl, who had struck fear into the hearts of all those top ten Swedish players, who had played the game with such sublime originality that the mere mention of his name today conjures images of an extraordinary artist reimagining tennis with mind bending angles. Miloslav Mecir, “The Big Cat”, was a quiet, shadowy figure from a little known land, playing the game in a way never seen before or since his mysterious arrival near the top of men’s tennis.

Cheated By Fate – Pavel Hutka vs. Adriano Panatta: Almost Was Not Good Enough

Very few people know the name of Pavel Hutka. Who he was and what he nearly did are buried in the deepest recesses of tennis history. His moment of glory never quite arrived. He was good enough to be a professional tennis player, but only on the very fringes of the Grand Prix circuit from 1974- 1981. He never won more than two consecutive matches at the highest level of the tour during those years. With a record marked by more losses than wins it is hard to discern any kind of career trajectory other than downward. He seemed to go from one bad loss to another, with a few scattered victories thrown in for good measure.

There have been hundreds of professional tennis players like Hutka over the past fifty years who have records just as forgettable. The only reason anyone remembers Hutka at all is for what he could not do. Over the course of a few hours at the 1976 French Open Hutka looked like a world beater. He was on the cusp of pulling off a major upset. No one could have known at the time, but if he would have defeated the Italian Adriano Panatta, it would have changed the course of tennis history. This would only become clear in retrospect, after the tournament ended with Panatta as the champion and Hutka as an afterthought.

Pavel Hutka

Pavel Hutka – almost was not good enough at the 1976 French Open

The Survivors – Rising From Obscurity
Pavel Hutka came into the 1976 French Open with a poor record on the regular tour. Since his debut at the Grand Prix level in 1974 he had won four matches and lost nine. His best victory had come the year before when he defeated 30th ranked Andrew Pattison of Great Britain on red clay in Hamburg. Other than that victory Hutka had no other memorable victories. He played a few close matches against such clay court stalwarts as Juan Gisbert and Francois Jauffret, but ended up losing in the final set. His play during the spring of 1976 did not raise hopes. He lost three of four matches with his lone victory coming over Bernard Minquot, a Belgian lucky loser (someone who loses in qualifying, but gets into the main draw of a tournament because of another player’s withdrawal) at a tournament in Dusseldorf. The French Open would be his first Grand Slam tournament ever. He entered the event ranked #162 in the world. Hutka was fortunate to avoid qualifying, but the main draw was not kind to him.

Hutka’s first match would be against the mercurial Panatta who was seeded eighth. The Italian had been playing some of the best tennis of his life. He was coming off a magical, much lauded victory at the Italian Open. During that tournament he had cheated fate, somehow managing to survive eleven match points in the first round against Australia’s Kim Warwick. After that great escape, he rode a wave of confidence to the title. Little did Panatta or anyone else realize that he was about to undergo the exact same experience in Paris that he did in Rome. Instead of the highly regarded Warwick in the first round, he would face the barely known Hutka. The two would play one of the most memorable matches of the tournament.

Adriano Panatta

Adriano Panatta – cheating fate at the 1976 French Open

Framed – Panatta Lucks Out
Hutka started the match in strong form, helped by an unorthodox style that gave Panatta fits. Officially the Czechoslovak played right handed, but he served and hit overheads as a lefty. This ambidextrous style was something Panatta had rarely experienced. Before he knew it, the speedy Hutka had run away with the first set, 6-2. Panatta then settled down. He seemed to hit his stride, easily winning the next two sets. It was in the fourth set that the match took an odd turn. Panatta lost his form, while Hutka soared. The Czechoslovak blanked the Italian 6-0. Hutka’s high level of play continued in the fifth set. He forced Panatta to hold serve on four separate occasions just to stay in the match. At 4-3 Hutka gave himself two break points on Panatta’s serve, but squandered them both. Five different times he was two points from winning the match. Then while leading 10-9, Hutka finally made it to match point. What happened next was incredible.

Panatta’s first serve was out. Hutka returned his second delivery with a shot that hit the net cord. Panatta came in behind a deep, penetrating shot. This forced Hutka to hit a lob that he struck with near perfect precision. Panatta was only barely able to reach the ball. His attempted smash struck the frame. Hutka nailed a cross-court backhand. Panatta lunged for the volley which hit his frame once again, but this time for a winner. Panatta pulled himself up off the court. He had somehow saved match point with two shots off the frame. It was an incredible turn of events. This boosted his self-confidence.  Hutka must have been asking himself what else he could do to defeat the Italian. Panatta would go on win the final three games and the match 12-10 in the fifth. The match point save made him invincible. Panatta would go on to win six more matches, including a defeat of Bjorn Borg in the semifinals, to take the championship. As for Hutka, he became nothing more than an almost famous footnote in tennis history.

The Hard Truth – Going On To Lesser Things
Pavel Hutka would never come close to another upset like his near defeat of Panatta at the 1976 French Open. His career was that of a classic tennis journeyman. He attained a career best ranking of #103 in 1979. By 1981 he had played his final tour level match. One has to wonder what would have happened if Hutka had defeated Panatta at Roland Garros in that memorable match. Would he have gone on to greater things? It is more likely that he would have lost in the next round. Hutka’s game was such that he was unable to consistently compete at the highest level as his later results so often showed. He had enough talent to play one exceptional match that almost altered the course of tennis history, but in Hutka’s case almost was not good enough.

Mismatched– Ivan The Underdog & The Ugly American: The 1984 French Open Men’s Final

When I think back to how my fascination with Eastern Europe began my memory gets hazy. There is no single moment that served to stimulate my interest. It was more an accretion of events, newspaper articles, television programs and school classes that eventually brought about a lifelong fascination. Many of my earliest memories came from sporting events. A touchstone among these was the 1984 French Open final between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. The contrast between the two men was reflective of the differences between West and East. McEnroe was the explosively temperamental and insanely talented American. He was individualistic to the point of being iconoclastic, both his game and behavior were anything ever seen in tennis.  A deeply flawed genius, in 1984 McEnroe was enjoying one of the greatest seasons in tennis history. His main rival at this time was Ivan Lendl, a taciturn Czechoslovakian who had an air about him that was colder than a Russian winter.

The power and the glory - Ivan Lendl won three French Open titles

The power and the glory – Ivan Lendl won three French Open titles

The Artists Versus The Automaton – A Rivalry Of Contrasts
Lendl’s game was the polar opposite of McEnroe’s. He bludgeoned opponents with a deadly forehand and laser like serves. Whereas McEnroe’s game was a display of artistry, Lendl’s was mechanistic. He seemed robotic and rigid, reflective of a cold and brusque ideology sequestered behind the Iron Curtain. In truth, Lendl had a canny, dry sense of humor, while McEnroe could be a first class jerk. It hardly mattered to the public since on the court Lendl was stereotyped, as a taciturn Eastern Bloc automaton. This colored my opinion of him. I did not care for Lendl because his game lacked imagination, but I was fascinated with what he seemed to represent. There was something scary and alluring about the man. For someone who was said to be cold and emotionless, men’s professional tennis’ equivalent of a human backboard, he was remarkably fragile in high stakes matches, tending to crack under extreme pressure.

Lendl had lost four Grand Slam finals while notoriously falling apart in the latter stages of these matches. There were questions of whether he would ever win a Grand Slam title. The 1984 French Open Final did not look promising for Lendl’s title hopes. He would face McEnroe, who was well on his way to possibly the greatest season in tennis history. The American had won his first forty-two matches that year, with five of those victories coming over Lendl. Traditionally McEnroe’s weakest surface had been clay, but he trounced Lendl twice on the surface prior to the French. As for Lendl, each of his losses in the first half of 1984, save one, were to McEnroe. He could beat anyone, except for his greatest nemesis, much like the fact that he could win any tournament other than a Grand Slam event.

Just out of reach - John McEnroe never won the French Open

Just out of reach – John McEnroe never won the French Open

Getting Personal – Johnny Mac & Ivan The Underdog                                            
Then again I was not quite for Lendl either. His personality and demeanor induced more fear than reverence. There was one thing that made me favor Lendl in this match, he was a decided underdog. A little over an hour into the match he was looking less like an underdog and more like an abject failure. McEnroe dominated the first two sets, allowing Lendl a total of five games and breaking his serve thrice. Lendl looked out of his element, McEnroe was on fire. That was until the second game of the third set. At this juncture, the score was 1-1 with McEnroe up 0 -30 on Lendl’s serve.  If McEnroe broke here, he would be well on his way to becoming the first American man in 30 years to win the French Open. At this critical juncture what ended up breaking was McEnroe’s temper. He took it upon himself to explode at a courtside cameraman in a bizarre show of nervous tension. McEnroe followed this up by losing the game. He would then go on to lose the third set.

In the fourth set McEnroe once again forged ahead. He broke Lendl’s serve to take a 4-2 lead. He was now a mere two games away from the coveted title. The seventh game would end up being the turning point of the match. The crucial moment came with McEnroe serving at game point, 40-30. He came in to the net behind a serve to Lendl’s backhand. The Czech hit a slice that dipped low causing McEnroe to hit his backhand volley from a difficult position. McEnroe pushed the volley a bit too much. It ended up going just long. After winning that point, Lendl dominated the rest of the set, winning five of the last six games. McEnroe made one last push in the fifth set, getting a couple of break points on Lendl’s serve, which he failed to convert. Lendl finally wore McEnroe out, breaking the American’s serve in the twelfth game to win the match the score of 3–6, 2–6, 6–4, 7–5, 7–5. Lendl became just the fourth player to come back from two sets to love down and win the French Open final.

Ivan Lendl Triumphant - 1984 French Open Champion

Ivan Lendl Triumphant – 1984 French Open Champion

Lendl Has The Last Word – His Game Does The Talking
The match altered the Lendl-McEnroe rivalry. They would play seventeen more times after that French Open final with Lendl winning twelve of those matches. McEnroe would make it to three more Grand Slam finals, winning two of them. His career would go into perpetual decline while Lendl continued to excel. The Czechoslovak played in twelve more Grand Slam finals and won seven of them, becoming the world’s top player during the latter half of the 1980’s. During this time he also became Americanized. After moving to the United States in 1986 he was declared an “illegal defector” by the government of Czechoslovakia. He was effectively banished from his homeland. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 Lendl was a permanent American resident and also a three time French Open champion. Lendl slowly grew on me. I respected his superhuman work ethic, intense focus and competitive play. Lendl’s values were not eastern or western, but universal. In any country or ideology this translated well.

 

An Obscure Madness – Dreams & Disappointments: Under The Spell Of Hungarian Men’s Pro Tennis

Fanatical followers of Hungarian tennis have to grasp at whatever hope they can find. Hope is the one thing in the absence of good results that can sustain interest in such an obscure and totally random subject. For instance, I still have hope that Victor Filipenko can somehow climb out of the 788th position in the world rankings. In other words, I am hoping Filipenko can win a match, any match on the satellite circuit, the lowest level of the pro tour. The only person that feels this desperate about Filipenko’s poor play is likely Filipenko himself. Actually it would be nothing short of a miracle if anyone else cared. The same goes for the eleven other Hungarians who have managed to earn at least one ATP ranking point in the past year. The words “no hoper” come to mind when recalling the rather thin list of accomplishments from men with strange names such as Mate Valkusz, Matyas Fuele and Levente Godry. No hoper means the player has little, if any chance of ever earning a decent leaving playing professional tennis, but that certainly does not stop them from trying.

Levente Gödry - one ATP ranking point away from oblivion

Levente Gödry – one ATP ranking point away from oblivion

The Peasants Of Pro Tennis – Satellites Of Serfdom
A popular website with news about men’s pro tennis players who toil on the challenger circuit (one level below the ATP World tour) is called Footsoldiers of Tennis. Challenger draws are filled with players usually ranked between #100 and #300. The Hungarian names mentioned above rarely get to play at this level. They are more like the peasantry of tennis, toiling for years on end in serfdom at satellite events, calling their own lines, stringing their own rackets and dreaming of direct entry to a few challenger events. A first round loss at an ATP World Tour event would be the holy grail of their career. Hope only goes so far when cheering on Godry who debuted at the pro level in 2011. His highest ranking ever was #937. He is now 24 years old. By this age, someone like Rafael Nadal was dominating Grand Slam events. Then again, there is only one Nadal, while there are hundreds of Godry’s lurking in the lower recesses of ATP Tour rankings.

What keeps a player such as Godry going is beyond me. Perhaps it is the memory of his lone victory on the tour over the past year, when he defeated Sweden’s Patrik Rosenholm who had to retire in the second set with an injury. This victory came at a satellite event or as they are officially now known, “Futures”. Since that time, Godry has managed to lose ten consecutive matches, several of which were to players ranked lower than one thousandth in the world. Godry suffered the ignominy of being double bageled (losing a two set match without winning a single game) by countryman Attila Balazs at a satellite event in Hungary last year. Godry has never defeated anyone in singles play ranked above #457 in the world over his seven year career. In his only match thus far in 2017, Godry lost in straight sets to a man with a great name and not so great game, the 929th ranked Tal Goldengorun of Israel. Godry might assuage fears of his ever dwindling career prospects by recalling the fact that he was part of a winning doubles tandem at a Serbian satellite event last year and also made two other doubles finals at that level back home. Quite marginal by most standards, but it does offer a bit of solace.

I do not want to sound defeatist, but the chance of Godry ever making it to the next level is next to nothing. It may be time for him to give up a dream that has long since been tarnished by innumerable losses. The same thing could have been said several years ago. Perhaps Godry considers his only career option to be that of a touring professional. I pity the man if that is true. Then again, there are plenty of people who are really bad at their chosen professions, but manage to hang around the office for years while collecting a paycheck. The problem for Godry is that collecting a check on the pro tennis tour is contingent on a certain level of proficiency. Anything less than victory will not be good enough. The world of men’s professional tennis is cruel and indiscriminate. Win, go home, go broke or find another career. When a touring pro gets desperate enough, he will cling to any shred of hope. Thus Godfry can console himself with the fact that, despite his abysmal results, he is the twelfth best men’s tennis player in Hungary. That means something, but probably only to him and a few hangers-on, of which I am one of the few.

Attila Balazs on the comeback tour

Attila Balazs on the comeback tour

Dreaming Of Greatness – In Praise Of Attila Balzas
Conversely, the man who destroyed Godry in Budapest last autumn, Attila Balazs, is a shining example of a player turning hope into reality. Balazs’ career is suddenly on the upswing after he disappeared from the tour for almost two years, likely due to injury. I have a special place in my heart for Balazs due to a rather bizarre connection between him and Hungarian tennis greatness. His last name is the first name of Hungary’s greatest men’s tennis player, Balazs Taroczy. In my world of unexplainable sporting superstition that counts for something, exactly what is open to question. For two years, beginning in August 2014, Balazs did not play any matches on the pro tour. He started his comeback nine months ago unranked and was forced to qualify for Futures events. He ran off a string of 15 consecutive wins in taking titles at three tournaments. A couple of months later, he won 20 more matches in a row while garnering four more Futures titles, this time in the tennis backwater of Tunisia.

Balazs reached a new level just this past week, as he qualified at the Ostrava Challenger and then made it all the way to the semifinals.  This will allow Balazs to jump another thirty or so places in the world rankings, moving him up to around #230 in the world. If Balazs keeps up this level of play he might be able to top his all-time highest ranking of #153 which he attained almost seven years ago. It might not sound like much, but for me and those few other eternally suffering Hungarian tennis fanatics it would be cause for a wild celebration, giving rise to greater hopes. This is the life I have chosen, following the careers of men I will never know, from a nation that I love, in the lower levels of a sport few follow. Dreaming of greatness and suffering disappointment, all in the service of an obscure madness. My dreams are the same as those Hungarian men who toil in anonymity on the pro tennis tour. We are in search of a greatness that remains forever out of reach, but never beyond belief.

A Ten Way Tie For Last Place – Tennis Triviality: A Fanatic Falls For The Hungarian Open 

You know your life has grown pathetic when a passion for Eastern European tennis has you transfixed by a few random results from a lower tier tour event that no one really cares about other than the Betfair folks, a few wildly enthusiastic tennis tour groupies and a promoter who has staked his entire existence on a week’s worth of mediocre matches. Yet such was the situation I found myself in last week as I spent several days searching for scraps of news and compulsively checking results from the Gazprom Hungarian Open in Budapest. The sponsor, a behemoth Russian energy giant not known for transparency, left a bit to be desired, but certainly provided packets full of prize money. My interest had little to do with the top players in the draw. I did not have one measly cent wagered on a match. Instead, I was almost certainly the only one out of 321,400,000 Americans obsessed with the outcome of a handful of matches featuring Hungary’s finest men’s tennis players.

These professionals were a motley group of journeymen at best, men whose one shining moment would either be a top 100 or top 1000 ranking. The kind of players who lurk in Davis Cup Group 2 Europe/Africa zone draws, dominating Andorra’s finest before being drubbed in turn by Belarusians. Cheering on Hungary’s finest men’s tennis players is almost always a thankless task. A kind of sporting chore that drove me to distraction for several days with thoughts of epicless efforts by clay court warriors with the names of Attila (of course!), Marton (very Teutonic with a fierce first service) and Zsombor (sounds like a sibling of Zamfir, that master of the pan flute who I once saw mocked in a Sprite commercial, I think). My hopes and dreams for one week were invested in the results these men might produce. I yearned for a few acts of greatness – such as a first round victory – while preparing for almost certain disappointment. In my zeal for transcendent obscurity, I overlooked a player in the draw with a deep, but less obvious Hungarian connection. I will get to that momentarily, but allow me to first set out a few of the facts surrounding last week’s tournament in Budapest.

Center court - at the Gazprom Hungarian Open held in Margaret Island in Budapest

Fill it up with dreams – center court at the Gazprom Hungarian Open held in Margaret Island in Budapest from April 24-30, 2017

Futility & Self-Flagellation  – The Plight Of Hungarian Tennis
The Gazprom Hungarian Open was nothing less than a landmark event for the Hungarian Tennis Association. It was the first time an ATP World Tour level event was held in Hungary. What in the name of Balazs Taroczy took so long? Hungary is a nation in love with football, water polo, rowing and handball. Tennis comes in about a ten way tie for last place. To everyone’s surprise Budapest stole a march on Bucharest, sweeping the tournament away from the Romanian capital, where it had been held since 1993. That is what a good or at least a wealthy sponsor can do for an ambitious promoter. Never mind that it was a 250 level tournament, the lowest tier of the ATP World Tour, this was akin to holding a Grand Slam event in Hungary. Wimbledon on the Danube anyone! The Hungarian Open was going to be a big deal, so much so hardly anyone in the world paid attention. Hungarian men’s professional tennis has these disappointments. Being a fan is an exercise in both futility and self-flagellation. Unfortunately only three Hungarian men were entered in singles, two in the qualifying and one in the main draw.  This shows the continuing dearth of talent for Hungarian men’s professional tennis players.

The results of those entered in the tournament were decidedly mixed. Seventeen year old Zsombor Piros played in his first ever tour level event. Ranked #1397, it is not surprising that he was unable to qualify for the qualifying. Instead, he needed a wild card just to gain entry and then proceeded to lose his first match in straight sets. Attila Balazs did better, winning his first qualifying match in an upset over second seeded and #79 ranked Dusan Lajovic of Serbia, before bowing out in a close match with an American hardly anyone has ever heard of, the exquisitely named Bjorn Frantangelo. Hungary’s great hope was the nation’s top ranked men’s player, Marton Fucsovics who made the most of his wild card entry by easily defeating Mikhail Youzhny in the first round of the main draw. Fucsovics then lost to a former world top tenner, Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, but not before nearly winning the first set in a tiebreaker. This ended a decent week for the Hungarians, but nothing really remarkable. A great depression started to consume me. I stared at the draw listlessly. All hope was gone. The idea that playing on home turf might inspire the Hungarian men to raise the level of their games was a good one, but the results never really materialized. The truth was they hardly ever do. Yet a ray of light broke through the clouds of defeat. I noticed the name of Laslo Djere, an ethnic Hungarian who happens to be a citizen from next door neighbor Serbia. Djere had the most memorable week of his young career, offering a triumph of hope over experience.

Márton Fucsovics - Hungary's top ranked men's tennis player

Márton Fucsovics – Hungary’s top ranked men’s tennis player (Credit: Diliff)

Cut From A Different Mold – Hungarian Tennis Stars By Way Of Serbia
A little known fact hidden in plain sight is that the greatest ethnic Hungarian tennis player in history and one of the all-time great women’s players was Monica Seles. Though she started her career playing under the flag of Yugoslavia, Seles grew up in Novi Sad, which is now part of Serbia. The city is located in the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia, home to 250,000 ethnic Hungarians. The Hungarians of Vojvodina were stranded there after the post- World War I Treaty of Trianon severed the region from Hungary and made it part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Monica Seles’ ancestors were among many ethnic Hungarians who stayed in the area despite their minority status. Few know about Seles’ Hungarian roots. I figured it out because I love to know a lot about nothing in particular, tantalizing myself with trivialities. The connection with 21 year old Laslo Djere is obscure, but good enough to keep me engaged in my forlorn hope for some kind of Hungarian tennis greatness. Djere was born in the town of Sentes, whose demographic makeup is 80% ethnic Hungarian. It is the kind of place no one will ever visit, unless they live there.

Until March, Djere had shown little promise of making a breakthrough on the World Tour. He had never won a world tour level match and only qualified for the main draw in a handful of events. His greatest feat had been qualifying for the French Open in 2016 before losing in the first round. His record in Challenger events was not exactly raising hopes either. He had managed runner-up finishes at Milan and Cortina in 2016 on red clay, his favorite surface. By April 2017, Djere was ranked #184, but his recent results were some of the worst of his career. He lost in seven straight challenger events, the last five losses of which he failed to win a set. The only reprieve was a one week drop down to the satellite tour where he gained a confidence boost by winning a small event in Croatia. I do not know what boggles the mind more, the minutiae of Djere’s 2017 swoon or the fact that for some unexplained reason he started playing like a top one hundred player in April.

Laslo Đere - anything is possible

Laslo Đere – anything is possible (Credit: Frédéric de Villamil)

Drizzle & A Dream – Laslo Djere’s Moment In The Rain
Perhaps winning the satellite event helped turn Djere’s game around. Two weeks later he achieved a career first, qualifying for and winning a first round match at the world tour event in Marrakech, Morocco. He nearly made it to the quarterfinals, losing in a taut three set match to Albert Ramos. Then it was on to Budapest where he exceeded all expectations, including my own. Djere barely made it through qualifying by winning two close matches. He then sailed through his first two matches in the main draw. That set him up against Fucsovics’ slayer, Fernando Verdasco in the quarterfinals. The match was played in less than ideal conditions, as rain fell intermittently. This helped Djere, as the slow conditions dented Verdasco’s powerful game. Nonetheless, the Spaniard won the first set and held match point in the second. Down on serve 30-40, 4-5, Djere pulled off a shocker. After saving match point he went on to win the set in a tie-breaker, then handily won the final set 6-2.

It was an incredible result, one that I could scarcely fathom. The next best thing to a Hungarian in the semis was an ethnic Hungarian who spoke the language. Though Djere subsequently lost in the semifinals, he had won four main draw matches in Marrakech and Budapest. That is four more ATP World tour level matches than he had ever won on tour before. Djere could have rubbed a rabbit’s foot raw his entire career and not expected to get this lucky. But was it luck or skill? The coming months will likely answer that question. Perhaps I am mistaking a sneeze for a hurricane, but his latest results are nothing short of miraculous. Could Djere, by way of Serbia, be the answer to Hungarian professional tennis fanatics wishes? Does anyone care? I do.

From Feel Good To Fairy Tale – A Champion In Exile: Jaroslav Drobny’s 1954 Wimbledon Championship (Part Three)

No one would have blamed Jaroslav Drobny if he had skipped the 1954 Wimbledon Championships. During the first half of 1954 his performance was mediocre at best. His best result, a runner-up showing at the Argentine International Championships, where he had lost the last set of the final 6-0. At the French Open he wasa upset in the fourth round. This was the first time that Drobny had failed to make it as far as the semifinals at Roland Garros in the post-World War II era. Adding to his woes, the powers that be at Wimbledon lowered his seed from fourth to eleventh. Drobny was so irritated by this rapid demotion that he contemplated withdrawing from the tournament altogether. Only after being convinced by his English wife Rita – a former Wimbledon player herself – was his entry confirmed. Unlike in years past he would not play in the doubles portion of the event. Drobny would instead focus only on singles, but not with his usual thorough preparation. This time he preferred to go fishing rather than practice between matches. Such a devil may care attitude was a striking departure from his past efforts. Gone was the uber-intensity. Drobny played at Wimbledon in 1954 like a man who had nothing to lose. Soon it would become apparent that he had everything to win.

Jaroslav Drobný - one of Eastern Europe's greatest tennis players

Jaroslav Drobný – one of Eastern Europe’s greatest tennis players (Credit: Bilsen, Joop van/Anefo)

Twice As Old & Better Than Ever
The 1954 Wimbledon Championships were Drobny’s eleventh appearance in the tournament. At 32 he was now twice as old as when he first played the tournament sixteen years before. Due to his low seeding Drobny would face a top player earlier than usual. He proceeded to sail through the first four rounds without losing a single set. Now he faced the second seed and super talented Australian Lew Hoad. In a stunning display of power and skill, Drobny annihilated Hoad in less than an hour. His play reached its apogee on the final point of the second set when Drobny broke Hoad’s serve with a magnificent forehand passing shot that he hit from a place wide of the sideline and managed to swing back into the court. The ball landed just inside the corner of the baseline. The third set was a mere formality.

Drobny was now through to the semifinals where he would once again face Budge Patty. The two men had treated the center court crowd to the longest match in Wimbledon history the previous year. Another close battle was expected. Each of the three previous times Drobny had defeated Patty at Wimbledon he had come from behind. This time he proved that things were going to be different for him at this Wimbledon. Drobny charged out to a two sets to love lead then was able to hold off Patty’s comeback attempt by winning the fourth set 9-7. The match had lasted half as long as their meeting from the year before.  He was through to his third final.

In the championship match Drobny would face 19 year old Aussie, Ken Rosewall. The contrast in age was striking. Rosewall was only three years old when Drobny played his first Wimbledon. It looked like Rosewall’s youth would give him a big advantage in fitness, but each of his matches save one, had been four or five set affairs. In the previous two rounds Rosewall had come back from two sets to one deficits. Conversely, Drobny had only lost one set the entire tournament, helping him rest his 32 year old body. Nonetheless, bookmakers all favored a Rosewall victory. Drobny’s feel good story was thought to be just that, but few expected a fairy tale ending.

The Final Drama
Going into the match Drobny was in a completely different frame of mind than in his two previous appearances in the final. As he stated in his autobiography A Champion In Exile, “I was totally calm and I approached the final against Rosewall in a state of complete peace of mind. I had been written off as a ‘has been’ or ‘never was’. On the eve of the final I caught a few fish in our nearby lake, watched other players chasing tennis balls around the court on television, and sat back in an easy chair at home and told my wife ‘I will win’.” Drobny had not anticipated making it to the final, for that matter he had only decided at the last minute to play the tournament. Now for the third time he was a single match away from his ultimate goal of winning the championship, except this time he really did not seem to be worried about that goal. Most importantly he was no longer burdened by the weight of expectations or self-imposed pressure. He was now primed to play his best.

Of course, nothing ever came easy for Drobny at Wimbledon. And as proof of that point he started the final by losing his serve right away and went down 0-2. He immediately fought back winning four straight games to give himself an opportunity to serve for the set. Rosewall broke back with a laser forehand pass on the deciding game point. At 7-6 Drobny served for the set again and failed. In the 21st game of the set Rosewall broke Drobny and subsequently had a set point while serving at 11-10. Drobny saved it with an overhead that just clipped the baseline. This was probably the most important point in the match. If Drobny had lost the first set, a comeback might have been too much to ask. Instead he went on another run, winning the final three games and the set.

Rosewall got his masterful backhand going in the second set. He broke in the eighth game then followed it up by serving out the set. In the third set Drobny changed tactics in an attempt to swing the match in his favor. He began to rush the net at every opportunity, even following service returns to the net. Rosewall was unable to pass or lob with any success. The set went to Drobny 6-2. The fourth set looked to be going the same way when Drobney broke to take a 5-3 lead. He was one game away from the title, closer than he had ever been. Luck at this moment favored Rosewall who broke with the help of a net cord on a backhand. The situation reversed itself in the fifteenth game when a net cord, this time for Drobny, dropped over giving him another break. For the second time he served for the championship. This being Drobny, dramatics were in order. First he went down 15-40. He managed to win the next three points in a row, the last of that trio with an ace.

Jaroslav Drobny - 1954 Wimbledon champion

Jaroslav Drobny – 1954 Wimbledon champion

The Moment That Lasts Forever
After 53 matches in 11 championships across 17 years Drobny had a Wimbledon match point. It turned out to be the only one he would ever need. He fired a serve to Rosewall’s backhand which promptly landed in the net. Game, set, match and 1954 Wimbledon Championship to Jaroslav Drobny, the first Czechoslovakian champion, the first eastern European champion, the first Egyptian champion all in one. The crowd rose to its feet for 15 straight minutes to give Drobny a well-deserved ovation. They had just witnessed the longest final in Wimbledon history. Against the odds, Drobny had overcome a fantastic opponent plus a litany of mental, physical and political obstacles. One can only imagine what the party bosses and apparatchiks back in Prague must have thought of their exiled countryman’s victory. Their vain attempt at control had helped create this man. And the man had created the moment, one that would last forever.