When the average men’s professional tennis fan imagines the life of a touring pro, they likely conjure up images of glamorous locales such as Monte Carlo, Nice, Dubai and Shanghai among many other famous cities. Courtesy cars, comped five-star hotel rooms, an entourage filled with mysterious acolytes and residences in tropical tax havens also come to mind. The reality is much different. For those outside of the top 100, earning a living as a tour pro means playing in obscure cities from Scheveningen to Samarkand, planning much of your own travel, flights in coach class and calling hotels your home in distant cities. Between hours and hours of practice, staying fit and finding someone to string racquets, there is not much time to see the world. Money is also a considerable worry. Imagine trying to manage your career and finances while traveling from one country to the next, never knowing how much you will get paid or when.
Lower ranking tour pros are often reduced to the status of modern nomads, roaming around the globe searching for the oasis of victory. Anyone who sticks around the career field of men’s professional tennis long enough has certainly earned every bit of their paychecks. The prize money is often meager when compared to expenses. This is the reality of being a professional tennis player who cannot make it all the way to the top. There is not much glory in the minor leagues, but there is a considerable amount of competitiveness, passion and fortitude. All these traits might best describe Hungary’s newest top 100 player, Attila Balazs. Many other terms could also be used to describe Balazs’ career, which up until the past nine months has been less than stellar.
Homeland Security – The Rise & Fall Of A Journeyman
“Journeyman” “Dirt baller” and “Clay court specialist.” Each of these terms could pply to the professional tennis career of Balazs, a man who toiled in obscurity for most of his 14 years on tour. Balazs is a seasoned veteran of the tour’s minor leagues. The kind of events where last chancers and no hopers often reside in the same draw as up and comers. Balazs has been part of this scene for years, playing tournaments at the lowest level in such far-flung locales as Iran and Thailand, Brazil and Israel, Kazakhstan and Uzebekistan. He eked out a journeyman’s existence by periodically dominating futures (lowest level of the pro tour) in his homeland and surrounding nations. Balazs excelled in the lower ranks, winning 29 futures events.
It was the challenger tournaments that often proved more difficult for Balazs. He only found success at the next level in fits and starts. He did win a challenger early in his career at Palermo in 2010, but it would be another decade before he would win another one. As for the mainline ATP Tour, Balazs experienced a meteoric start followed by a vanishing act. In 2012, he qualified for his first tour level event in Bucharest and made the semifinals. Along the way he defeated four top 100 players. An excellent start to what looked like a promising career on the clay court circuit.
Unfortunately, it was a false promise as Balazs finished the year ranked outside of the top 200. It would be another five years before he would break that threshold. Balazs earned a high in the rankings of #159 in October 2010. Part of the problem were injuries and along with a couple of long sabbaticals from the game. Balazs did not play a single match from August 2014 through August 2016. He was off the tour for another prolonged period between July 2018 and March 2019. Then with his tank running on empty and retirement looking increasingly likely, Balazs started an unexpected and delightful rise to prominence.
The Comeback – A Wild Ride In Umag
Balazs reappeared on tour in the spring of 2019 ranked #260 and immediately proceeded to start winning matches at Challenger events. He also managed a quarterfinal finish in the Budapest ATP Tour tournament. These initial results foreshadowed greater achievements to come. In June, the Magyar right hander with his two-fisted backhand made two consecutive finals at Challengers in Bratislava and Prostejov. Then Balazs nearly managed to qualify for Wimbledon, which would have been his first Grand Slam main draw ever. All this was a precursor to a wild ride in Umag, a tour level event played in the Croatian coastal resort town nestled on the shores of the Adriatic. After qualifying, Balazs stared down seven match points against Croatian Viktor Galovic in a first round encounter before ultimately triumphing.
In his next match, Balazs once again was on the brink of a loss before pulling through in a third set tiebreaker against Filip Krajinovic. His next match was more of the same as he came from a set down before winning once again, this time against Italian Stefano Travaglia. By the time the semis rolled around, Balazs was flush with confidence from that series of masterful escapes. He proceeded to easily dispatch Laszlo Djere in straight sets. This put him through to his first tour level final. Balazs took a commanding lead against Serbian Dusan Lajovic. He served for the first set, only to prove unable to seal the deal. He ended up losing in straight sets. The result at Umag pushed Balazs’ ranking to an all-time high of #141. Nobody knew that the best was yet to come.
An Improbable Rise – Emerging Trends
As 2020 began, Balazs had an unprecedented opportunity to move closer to the top 100. He did not have to defend a single ranking point until March. He started the new year by winning a challenger title on hard courts, a career first, in Bangkok. He then headed down to South America. The last time he played on the continent in 2017, Balazs lost in the first round of three consecutive challenger events. This time he would be attempting to play tour level tournaments. Balazs made it past the first round in Cordoba, but in Rio De Janeiro he was trounced in the final round of qualifying. All hope was not lost though. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. That was certainly the case when Balazs was the beneficiary of a withdrawal and became what is known in tennis parlance as the lucky loser. This happens when a player gains entry to the main draw despite a loss in qualifying.
Balazs, who by this time was ranked #106, surged through the draw by winning three matches and nearly overcoming the man who had also beaten him in qualifying, Italian Gianluca Mager, in a tense three setter. The upshot of this past week is that Balazs now finds himself ranked at a career high of #78. Considering that this time last year he was ranked 180 spots lower, this new career high is quite a cause for celebration. His initial entry into the top 100 is a smashing personal success. Add in the fact that the 31 year old Balazs is playing at peak level, despite or perhaps because of his age and a new Hungarian tennis star has suddenly emerged from the ranks of journeyman pros. This has been the most improbable rise in the history of Hungarian professional tennis. Balazs was on the edge of tennis oblivion this time last year. Now he is primed and ready to ascend even higher in the rankings. Whatever happens, no fan of Hungarian tennis fan will forget Attila Balazs, a player who had finally come of age.