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.

Fanaticism Never Felt So Good– Marton Fuscovics: Euphoria & Misery In Unequal Measure

Two weeks, Rome To Geneva. It sounds like a tourist junket or a fabulous vacation. The distance covered in kilometers is relatively slight, the distance traveled by my favorite tennis player might as well have been from the Mariana Trench to the moon. In the space of a fortnight my outlook on Marton Fucsovics’ 2018 season went from bleak to euphoric. This is what it means to be more than a fan.  When your hopes and dreams ride on match results from half a world away, that is either pathetic or fantastic. Perhaps it is a little bit of both depending on one’s level of desperation. Fanaticism knows no bounds. It is infused with passion, an uncontrollable emotion. And it blows everything, either good or bad, out of proportion.

On the rise - Marton Fucsovics in Geneva

On the rise – Marton Fucsovics in Geneva (Credit Marton Fucsovics/Facebook)

A Failure To Qualify –  The Fall In Rome
My vicarious journey from Rome to Geneva with Marton Fucsovics started with despair and desperation. I had dark forebodings soon after the main draw of the Italian Open was released. I scrutinized it for many minutes, searching in vain for Fucsovics. He was nowhere to be found. This was difficult for me to comprehend. How could he pass up a chance to play one of the most important tournaments of the year? He needed every ranking point he could get to maintain his ranking at #60. Perplexed by his absence, I could not understand why he would skip the tournament. It turned out that I was looking in the wrong place for his name. I finally found him in the qualifying draw. This was the first time in 2018 he had played the qualifying round at any tour event.

Qualifying is difficult at the best of times for those players who have finally made the leap to main draw entry. In this case, just to make it into the main draw Fucsovics would have to win two matches. And even if he won these matches they would not provide him with any ranking points. His first match would be against an Italian I had never heard of, Filippo Baldi. Baldi’s ranking was so low at #370 that he had to be given a wild card just to play in the qualifying. He had never beaten any player in the top 150. Such an opponent would usually signal a victory for Fucsovics. The main threat Baldi presented was that he would be playing on home ground, at his nation’s most prestigious tennis tournament. This factor could not be overlooked. The Italian tennis fan base is known to be raucous, especially at the Italian Open. Just ask Bjorn Borg who became so flustered in the 1978 Italian Open Final against Italy’s favorite son, Adriano Panatta, that he threatened to walk off the court.

Fucsovics was likely to face a tough match against Baldi. The Italian did not disappoint. The match was as just about as close as it possibly could be. They split the first two sets in tiebreakers before Baldi prevailed 7-5 in the third. Fucsovics had nothing to be ashamed of. He fought hard in an environment where his opponent was an overwhelming crowd favorite. Despite his effort, the loss still stung. A fanatic such as myself spends an inordinate amount of time hoping for the best while imagining the worst. My fear was that Fucsovics’ ranking would plummet come June and July when he was due to defend an inordinate amount of ranking points from the previous year. How was he going to cover those points? Fucsovics began answering that question eight days later when he took the court in Geneva.

A Dream Come True - Marton Fucsovics becomes the first Hungarian since 1981 to win a title on the ATP Tour

A Dream Come True – Marton Fucsovics becomes the first Hungarian since 1981 to win a title on the ATP Tour (Credit: Marton Fucsovics/Facebook)

Sinking Heart & Soaring Spirit – Rising From The Ashes
My heart sank when I first saw the draw for Geneva. Fucsovics’ had drawn the second seed, a Spaniard by the name of Gullermo Garcia-Lopez ranked #36 in the world. This is what happens in a lower level tour event when a player is not ranked high enough to garner a seed. Players such as Fucsovics have as good a chance to draw a top player, as they do a qualifier. Judging by his form it would have been a stretch to predict victory. Predicting a rout in his favor would have been lunacy until the improbable happened. Fucsovics destroyed the Spaniard, only losing three games in the process. This was not so much winning as it was dominating. He then managed to win his next match with American Frances Tiafoe in straight sets. At this point I was satisfied. Fucsovics had made it to the quarterfinals, matching his best showing – a quarterfinal in Munich – of the clay court season.

His next opponent would be the toughest yet, a favored son of Switzerland, three-time Grand Slam tournament champion, Stanislaus Wawrinka. Fucsovics’ lone advantage was that Wawrinka had been nursing an injury earlier in the year and his level of play had dropped. Conversely, Wawrinka was also the two-time defending champion. He was heavily favored to win the match. Predictions are nothing more than opinions built on past performance. In this case, Wawrinka’s past play turned out to mean nothing. Fucsovics started slowly, losing the first two games to Wawrinka, Then, as if by magic his play soared. Astonishingly, he would only lose two more games over the rest of the match. He proceeded to win twelve of the fourteen games on his way to a surprise victory.

Marton Fucsovics - 2018 Geneva champion

Marton Fucsovics – 2018 Geneva champion (Credit: Marton Fucsovics/Facebook)

On The Verge Of Reality – Dreams Dawning

This result had my head swimming with thoughts of what might come next. Everything now seemed possible. If Fucsovics could dominate one of the world’s best players, then he was surely capable of winning the title. This idea had me imagining great things for Fucsovics. At one point, I envisioned him winning a Grand Slam title. The definition of a fanatic is one who imagines his hero winning a Wimbledon crown after a quarterfinal victory in Geneva. I am certain Fucsovics and his coach, Attila Savolt, would have none of this. For tennis pros, it is always crucial to stay in the moment and concentrate on the business at hand. A fanatic such as myself does not adhere to that rule. Almost immediately, I began to study the rankings to see how much Fuscovics would rise depending on if he won or lost in the semifinals or final.

This was a golden opportunity for Hungary’s best player to possibly win a championship. Paradoxically, the closer Fucsovics got to that goal the more relaxed I became. Everything he did in Geneva after the quarterfinals was a bonus. He was now in position to cushion his ranking with a good showing.  Saturday dawned with a renewed sense of hope. That hope nearly expired when Fucsovics went down a set to Steve Johnson, one of the few Americans who excels on clay courts. Fucsovics proceeded to win a close second set, then dominated in the third, winning 6-1. He was now through to the final, the first male player from Hungary to make it this far in over three decades. After years of toiling away on the tour he was one match from a career defining victory. I could hardly believe it. There is a feeling of unreality that sweeps over a fanatic when one of their wildest dreams is on the verge of being realized. Very few times in life or sports do dreams come true, the final in Geneva presented such an opportunity.

In The Zone – Achieving Total Confidence
In truth, I could hardly believe this was happening. The terrible low of Fucsovics’ qualifying loss in Rome seemed to have never happened. I was ignoring the fact that this loss might be the reason for Fucsovics play in Geneva. In the final, he dominated the match against German Peter Gojowczk. Fucsovics was in the zone, a heady place of zen-like calm where the player can do no wrong. Time evaporates, the fear of failure ceases to exist and total confidence is achieved. One of several examples of this in the final was his first serve. It was lethal. Fucsovics won 91% of the points on his first serve. His return game was nearly as good. He won exactly half his return points. This added up to a 6-2, 6-2 victory. Game, set and championship to Fucsovics.

This was his first tour level title, but for Hungarian tennis it was much than that. It broke a title drought for Hungarians on the men’s tour stretching all the way back to Balazs Taroczy, when he won in 1982 at Hilversum. Hungary would also have its first player ranked in the top 50 since Taroczy. Fucsovics would jump to #45 when the rankings were released a day after the final. His career is now on a different trajectory. Winning the Geneva title also help him avoid having to play qualifying for the rest of the year. The title has set me off on another round of wild imaginings, even though I know expectations must be tempered. Fucsovics’ career will always be a work in progress. That is the way professional tennis operates. One week the depths of despair, the next winning a long hoped for title. The past two weeks have been a wild ride, euphoria and misery in unequal measure. Euphoria has won out…for now. This is what means to be a fan of Marton Fucsovics. Fanaticism never felt so good.

The Miracle of Marton Fucsovics – Hungary’s Top Tennis Player Realizes His Potential

In February it will be exactly one year since I wrote my first post mentioning Marton Fucsovics. At the time, he was Hungary’s top tennis player, but that was about the extent of his fame. Fucsovics was ranked #163 back then. He looked to be headed for journeyman status. In tennis parlance that means a career toiling away at second tier challenger events in provincial European cities. By the beginning of 2017, Fucsovics had been playing on the pro tour for five and a half years. The great promise Fucsovics had shown when he won the 2010 Wimbledon Boys’ Singles Championship looked to be a thing of the past. Then something remarkable happened, Fucsovics began to play the best tennis of his life. His rise in the rankings was steady. He achieved a career high of #109 prior to Wimbledon, after he won a grass court challenger event in Ilkley, England. This gained him a main draw spot at the All England Club.

In the autumn of 2017 the man who goes by the nickname of Marci, broke inside the top 100 for the first time ever. This occurred after he qualified for the main draw at the ATP Tour event in Basel, Switzerland where he made it to the quarterfinals before losing a close three setter to fourth ranked Marin Cilic. Fucsovics finished the season ranked at a career high of #85. As the self-anointed personal record keeper of Marton Fucsovics, I could not have been more pleased. His 2017 season was more than his small, but growing group of fans could have hoped for. Marci from Nyiregyhaza was on the verge of becoming a household name in his tennis starved homeland of Hungary if he could manage to stay in the top 100. As the 2018 season began, I began to worry if Fucsovics would be able to achieve the same high level of results he had during 2017. That worry has now vanished due to the miracle of Marton Fucsovics.

On the verge of a major breakthrough - Fucsovics ranking prior to the Australian Open

On the verge of a major breakthrough – Fucsovics’ ranking prior to the Australian Open

The Notable Nyiregyhazan – Scorching The Competition
Only two notable residents are listed on the English language Wikipedia page for Nyiregyhaza, a small city in eastern Hungary. One of whom is the famous children’s book author, Gabor Nogradi. The other is a female Hungarian pop singer by the name of Ibolya Olah. It should not be long before Marton Fucsovics’ name is listed alongside them. That is because Fucsovics is playing tennis at a level that has not been seen from a Hungarian since Balazs Taroczy in the 1980’s. To put it bluntly, Fucsovics has started off the season on fire and is now positively scorching. The analogy is appropriate since Fucssovics has garnered the best results of his career in Australia, where he is just as hot as the weather. He arrived Down Under in the Australian capital to play the Canberra Challenger as a warm up for the Australian Open. He proceeded to sail through the draw to the final with only the loss of a single set. In the final, he faced the Italian veteran Andreas Seppi. Fucsovics won the first set, but dropped the next two. Nevertheless, getting to the final led to his highest ranking ever at #80.

The result gave Fucsovics momentum as he headed to Melbourne for the Australian Open, the year’s first Grand Slam event. Grand Slam tournaments are where rising players solidify their status and the best players etch their name in history. Coming into the Australian Open, Fucsovics had never won a match in the main draw of a Grand Slam event, though he had come closest at the U.S. Open this past August where he lost in a fifth set tiebreaker to the Frenchman Nicholas Mahut. Coming off his runner-up finish in Canberra, Fucsovics had good reason to believe he could finally break through for his first Grand Slam tournament victory. This hope was tempered by the thought of what happened to Fucsovics last year at the Australian Open. He had lost in the first round of qualifying to a young Australian, Bradley Mousley, who was ranked #529 at the time. It would turn out to be the worst loss Fucsovics suffered in 2017. Of course, there was another way of looking at this result. Fucsovics could not do any worse at the Australian in 2018 than he had in 2017. He really had nothing to lose and everything to gain this time, including valuable ranking points.

Hungarian Hero - Marci signs an autograph for a young fan at the Australian Open

Hungarian Hero – Marci signs an autograph for a young fan at the Australian Open

Everything To Gain – The Confidence Man
His first round opponent was a fellow Eastern European, the diminutive Moldovan journeyman Radu Albot. The two had played four times previously, with Fucsovics winning three of those meetings. The Hungarian’s greatest advantage over Albot is physical. He is five inches taller than the Moldovan. Fucsovics power game would end up overwhelming Albot in four sets, as he won three-quarters of the points on his first serve. He also hit 13 more winners, while feasting on Albot’s weak serve, which he broke nine times. It is difficult to imagine just how big this first round victory was for Fucsovics. He gained a boost to his confidence that would bode well for his next match. He would be a decided underdog against the top ranked American player in the world, #13 seed Sam Querry.

Prior to his second round encounter with Querry, Fucsovics had never beaten anyone ranked higher than 36th in the world. Marci proved there is a first time for everything in 2018, as he defeated Querry in four sets. This time he won 82% of his first serve points. The key moment came in the second set when he was able to win a tiebreaker 8-6. Fucsovics also teed off when returning Querry’s second serve. Just like in the Albot match, Fucsovics won over half of his opponent’s second serve points. With this win, Fucsovics entered a new stage of his career. For the first time ever, Fucsovics had beaten a player in the world’s top 20. His reward was a third round match with a man he had already handily defeated earlier this year, the Argentine Nicholas Kicker. Fucsovics once again thoroughly dominated Kicker, only allowing him seven games. He did this with the same winning formula from his previous victories, winning 63% of Kicker’s second serve points and out slugging him from the baseline by hitting twenty more winners. Fucsovics’ confidence is now at an all-time high and it has showed. He has been steamrolling the opposition.

The ultimate challenge - Fucsovics faces Federer in the 4th Round of the Australian Open

The ultimate challenge – Fucsovics faces Federer in the 4th Round of the Australian Open

Realizing Potential –  Scaling New Heights
It is hard to imagine a more thrilling tournament up to this point for Fucsovics. He has now guaranteed himself a quarter of a million dollars in prize money, a ranking in the world’s top 60 and most importantly a fourth round matchup with the player many consider the greatest ever, Roger Federer. It is a daunting, but well-deserved match for Fucsovics. He has spent the past twelve months working his way up to this point. Fucsovics has put himself in a great position with nothing to lose. Compared to where he was at this time last year, mired in the obscure world of tennis’ lower ranks, he has come farther than anyone could have expected. What led to his resurgence? There were big victories in Davis Cup, a title and multiple finals in Challenger level tournaments. These achievements did not necessarily point to his breakthrough at the Australian Open. Perhaps it has been something outside the world of tennis that has helped him scale new heights. Just two months ago, Fucsovics was engaged to get married. Success both on and the court have coalesced, leading to the miracle of Marton Fucsovics, a Magyar sportsman finally realizing his potential.

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.