“She Belonged To The All-Time Greats” – Zsuzsa Kormoczy: The Improbable Champion (Part Two)

On my bookshelf I have a wonderful volume called Eminent Hungarians. In it the author, Krisztian Nyary, tells the stories of Hungarians from all walks of life who became heroes through extraordinary acts of courage and perseverance. A few of these eminent personages were from the sporting world and several were Jewish. As I began to research the exploits of the Hungarian Jewish tennis star Zsuzsa Kormoczy I would not have been surprised to find a chapter dedicated to her in Nyary’s book. Her story was not included in the book, but it would have been a worthwhile addition. Kormoczy came from a tiny rural village in a relatively impoverished part of the country. She was a Hungarian Jew who managed to survive a time when they were being murdered on an industrial scale.

This petit woman, who would come to be known as “Suzy K”, excelled in a bourgeoisie sport despite playing under the watchful eyes of a Stalinist regime that considered anything formerly associated with the upper classes tantamount to treason. Kormoczy first learned to survive, and later to thrive at an advanced age, achieving tennis stardom. She did all this despite the adversity life had presented to her. Another school of thought might say her accomplishments were a product of the will and determination she had developed in overcoming numerous obstacles. After years spent overcoming discrimination, ideological conformity and injuries she found herself in the spring of 1958 on the cusp of greatness. The crowning achievement of a career which had been shadowed by so much darkness came in the City of Light, Paris.

Zsuzsa Kormoczy - In action

Zsuzsa Kormoczy – In action

Courting Greatness – A New Level Of Focus & Fitness
Coming into the 1958 French Open, Zsuzsa Kormoczy’s play was nearing its peak. She had already won two clay court tournaments along the French Rivera earlier in the spring. Now Kormoczy turned her attention to the game’s only Grand Slam event played on her favorite surface, red clay. Her past results at the French were promising. The year before she had been unlucky in having to face top seeded Brit Shirley Bloomer in the quarterfinals. Kormoczy was blown off the court, first by high wind gusts and then by Bloomer, managing to only win two games. She hoped 1958 would be different. Her preparation, specifically with fitness, was much more extensive than in the past. Kormoczy’s coach, Joszef Somogyi, worked her into prime shape with a training regime focused on running and gymnastics. Her fitness level would be crucial to success.

She breezed through the early rounds without any problems. Her first tough match came against Ann Haydon of Great Britain in the quarterfinals. Kormoczy was sick with a cold while the left handed Haydon’s game made her suffering worse. The Brit’s game was unorthodox, a contradictory combination of looping, topspin forehands and sliced backhands. Kormoczy came from 0 -2 down to win six of the next seven games and the set. She quickly fell behind in the second set 1-4. Her strategy of throwing Haydon’s rhythm off by drawing her into the net led to a quick turnaround. Kormoczy swept the final five games to take the match 6-3, 6-4. Her semifinal match against South African Heather Segal looked like it would be a grind after it took Kormaczy ten minutes just to win the first game. This turned out to be an aberration as Kormoczy surrendered only one game the entire match, easily moving onto her first Grand Slam Final where she was to play Bloomer, the woman who had blown her out the year before.

Zsuzsa Kormoczy - 1958 French Open

Zsuzsa Kormoczy – 1958 French Open Champion

Peak Performance – Springtime In Paris
Kormoczy may have been the underdog in the final, but she had one major advantage. In advancing to the title match she had yet to surrender a set. On the other hand, Bloomer had come from a set down three consecutive times just to make the final. She had to be suffering from fatigue after this trio of close calls. Once again Bloomer fell behind as Kormoczy took the opening set 6-4. Oddly enough, in the second set Kormoczy was the one feeling fatigue. As she related many years later in her autobiography, it may have been due to tiredness from nerves. Instead of expending what energy she had left in a likely losing battle in the second set, Kormoczy changed her tactics. She would cede the second set to Bloomer, but at the same time run her as much as possible in the hopes of tiring her out. The tactic worked as Kormoczy won the first five games of the deciding set. Bloomer fought back to 5-2.

In the next game, Kormoczy raced to a 40-15 lead and on her second match point she forced a long return from Bloomer. Game, set, match and French Open Championship to Zsuzsa Kormoczy. After playing international tennis on and off for two decades while surviving periodic bouts of tumult and terror she finally had reached the pinnacle of women’s tennis. At the time of her title, she was 33 years and 8 months old, making her the oldest French Open Women’s Singles Champion up to that point in history. This is a record that she still holds today. Kormoczy was a well deserving if highly improbable titlist. Self-belief carried her through all the ups and downs of a career that mirrored her life, periods of tumult followed by brilliance. In the process she became the only Hungarian female to win a Grand Slam singles title. A feat that has never been matched.

One of the All Time Greats - Zsuzsa Kormoczy

One of the All Time Greats – Zsuzsa Kormoczy

New Beginnings – Always A Champion
The 1958 French Open was not the end of Kormoczy’s career, but yet another beginning. Later in the summer she would advance to the semifinals at Wimbledon. The next year she once again advanced to the French final. She fell short in her quest for back to back titles, but went onto play several more years at the highest level, adding another title at Monte Carlo and also winning the prestigious Italian Championship. After retiring, she became a coach at Vasas, the same club where the Hungarian men’s great Balazs Taroczy played. She also led the Hungarian National Tennis Association. Kormoczy lived to the age of 84, a beloved and revered figure off the court just as much as she had been on it. After she died, Andrea Temesvari, Hungary’s second greatest female player of all time paid Kormoczy the ultimate compliment, saying “She belonged to the all-time greats.”

The Power of Perseverance – Zsuzsa Kormoczy: Hungary’s Greatest Female Tennis Player (Part One)

Many of my early memories of Eastern Europe came from watching international sporting events. Foremost among these were men’s and women’s professional tennis tournaments. The women’s events were just as interesting to me as the men’s. This was mainly due to the rivalry between the American baseliner Chris Evert and the Czechoslovakian serve and volley specialist Martina Navratilova. Navratilova usually won these highly competitive matches. She was the greatest women’s player of her time and one of the all-time greats by any standard. Due to her and Ivan Lendl I became familiar with the difficult to pronounce nation of Czechoslovakia. Both Navratilova and Lendl soared to the number one ranking and eventually became American citizens. Less well known, but no less interesting to me were the best Hungarian players of that time, Balazs Taroczy and Andrea Temesvari.

The latter was a Magyar beauty whose looks garnered her as much attention as her game. I can still recall photos of Temesvari in tennis magazines that focused on her blonde bombshell looks. Temesvari’s game never quite rose to the level of the hype around her. From an all-time high ranking of #7 in 1982, her career went through a series of fits and starts due to injury problems. In 1986 she teamed with Navratilova to win her only Grand Slam title, the French Open Doubles Championship. This was not the first time a Hungarian woman had won a title at the French Open. Forgotten by almost everyone was the first and only Hungarian woman to win a Grand Slam single’s title, Zsuzsa Kormoczy otherwise affectionately known to her family, friends and fans “Suzy K”. A Hungarian Jewish woman who managed to survive the Holocaust and triumph in the 1958 French Open.

Zsuzsa Kormoczy - Hungary's Greatest Female Tennis Player

Zsuzsa Kormoczy – Hungary’s Greatest Female Tennis Player (Credit: MTI Fotó József Szécsényi)

Delayed Development – War Changes Everything
Zsuzsa Kormoczy was born in the tiny village of Pely located within the flood plain of the Tisza River. Ethnically Jewish, she came of age during the interwar period when Hungarian Jews were facing unprecedented discrimination. This did not stop her from developing into a world class tennis player. At the tender age of twelve she won the Hungarian Junior Championships. She announced her arrival in top class tennis by winning the 1940 Budapest International Tennis Tournament. She had to overcome a bad fall in the final which left blood pouring from a cut on her knee. Down 1-6, 1-4 she rallied to win the title on her 16th birthday. Slight in stature, Kormoczy relied on strong groundstrokes. She was at her best on red clay, the dominant surface in continental Europe. What should have been the prime years of her career were interrupted by the looming threat of world war. An ominous foreboding of what was to come occurred in September 1940. After leading Hungary over Yugoslavia in the Mid-European Cup, Kormoczy was not allowed to play in the final against Germany due to her Jewish ethnicity. Her career prospects looked bleak as the war spread throughout much of Central and Eastern Europe.

Kormoczy’s development was delayed, as was that of so many others, by World War II. For five and a half years she would not play in any international tournaments. Unlike other top women’s players, Kormoczy’s life was also under threat during this time. Hungarian Jews from provincial areas were rounded up and deported to death camps in 1944. Luckily for Kormoczy her tennis skills meant she had moved far away from her home village of Pely on the Hungarian Great Plain. If she had not, more than likely the woman who would become Hungary’s greatest female tennis player would have perished at Auschwitz like hundreds of thousands of other Hungarian Jews. She was able to keep up with her physical training while in seclusion. In 1945 she came out of hiding and with the help of her coach constructed a tennis court on which to practice. The next year she played her first international tournament in over half a decade.

Greater Things To Come– Tribulations & Titles
In 1947 Kormoczy finally made her debut at a Grand Slam tournament, advancing to the quarterfinals at the French Open. This was a preview of greater things to come on the red clay at Roland Garros. In those days, Eastern Europeans such as Kormoczy only had two opportunities per year to win a Grand Slam title – at the French Open and Wimbledon – since overseas travel was extremely limited for Hungarians (she only played the U.S. Open once in her career). Kormoczy’s play in Europe was also interrupted by the imposition of travel restrictions by the Stalinist Rakosi regime that ruled Hungary with an iron fist during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. She did not play at Roland Garros from 1949 through 1954. By this time, Kormoczy was thirty years old, a mother and had lost nearly a decade of her career to war and imposition of the Iron Curtain.

At one point during the 1950’s the Hungarian press, a mouthpiece for government propaganda, accused Kormoczy of only enjoying tennis when she played abroad. She also battled various injuries during this time. Throughout her career she suffered from chronic issues with kidney stones that would sideline her at inopportune times. Despite these tribulations she continued to persevere. Kormoczy’s resilience was nothing short of incredible and would finally pay dividends in 1958, the greatest year of tennis by a Hungarian woman in the sport’s history. Kormoczy won her first international tournament of that year in France along the Cote D’Azur. She was soon heading further east along the Mediterranean coastline to one of the most prestigious tournaments in tennis, Monte Carlo.

Coming Of Age – Right On Time
Kormoczy had already won twice at Monte Carlo, in 1948 and 1952. The 1958 women’s field was one of the toughest in the event’s history. Even a clay court player as accomplished as Kormoczy could only procure a #8 seed. In the quarterfinals she faced off against another two-time champion, the American Dottie Knode. Despite suffering the aftereffects of a toothache, Kormoczy prevailed in straight sets. In the final she downed another American, Mimi Arnold to become the first three-time women’s champion in the event’s history. Her next event would be the French Open. Historically this was the Grand Slam event where Kormoczy played her best. Two years earlier she had advanced to the semifinals. Now she was entering the French Open in top form and could be considered one of the favorites. One thing working against her was age. Kormoczy was 33 years old and no woman had ever won a title at the French anywhere close to her age. She was about to become the first.

Click here for: “She Belonged To The All-Time Greats” – Zsuzsa Kormoczy: The Improbable Champion (Part Two)

Goulash Wimbledon – Marton Fucsovics: Making Hungarian Tennis History

In 1948 Hungary was on the verge of being sealed behind an Iron Curtain. Communism was ascendant, the Red Army was settling in for a long occupation and Stalinists were preparing to arrest a seemingly endless list of enemies of the state. For Hungarian, leaving the country was becoming increasingly difficult. Everyone was being watched. Sportsmen were not immune from the prying eyes of an increasingly totalitarian state. This was long before international sports competitions became another arena in which the Cold War was fought. In the late 1940’s, Eastern European athletes who went abroad to play in international sporting contests were viewed with barely disguised suspicion. The authorities knew they would be in contact with foreigners. In a Stalinist system this was a huge red flag.

Foreigners were spies until proven otherwise. Anyone talking with foreigners was also suspected of being a spy. Thus, athletes from countries such as Hungary were in a compromised position as soon as they left the country. Furthermore, there was always the fear that they might defect. This could cause embarrassment to the incipient communist regimes that were supposedly creating a brave new world. Utopian ideals did not suffer defections. Why else would these supposed paradises have to erect an Iron Curtain to keep their citizens from heading westward. Getting out from behind the Iron Curtain in a nation administered along Stalinist lines often took extraordinary circumstances such as intervention from a powerful individual or organization.

Fortunately for Hungarian tennis star Jozsef Asboth, he had a patron that helped him travel abroad. His patron was not a fellow Hungarian, instead it was none other than the King of Sweden. Gustaf V provided a personal warrant that Asboth would return to Hungary after playing at Wimbledon. A year earlier, Asboth became the first Eastern European player to win a Grand Slam tournament, when he triumphed at the French Open. Asboth repaid the king’s confidence by making it all the way to the semifinals. Asboth would play Wimbledon three more times with his best result a 4th round showing in 1951. His 1948 semifinal showing was the last time a Hungarian man made it past the fourth round at Wimbledon. That was until Marton Fucsovics won his fourth round match at the All England Club on July 5th.

Ecstasy in victory – Marton Fucsovics after defeating Andrey Rublev at Wimbledon

The Fall & Rise – Hungarian Men’s Tennis at Wimbledon
Jozsef Asboth’s career collided with a communist state that made it difficult for him to play abroad. For instance, following his 1947 title, Asboth did not play at the French Open again until 1954. On occasion, Asboth would compete in some of the major tournaments, but there is little doubt that his career was curtailed due to a ban imposed on his travel by the Hungarian communist state. It would fall to other Hungarian players during the 1960s, 70’s and 80s to surpass Asboth’s semifinal showing at Wimbledon. The two who did the best at Wimbledon were Szabolcs Baranyi and Balazs Taroczy. They had one common failing after each made it to the 4th round at the All England Club in 1975 and 1980 respectively. That failing was Bjorn Borg who defeated them both. Neither Baranyi nor Taroczy was alone in losing to the cool, blue eyed Swedish assassin who won five consecutive Wimbledons. Meanwhile, after Taroczy retired in the late 1980’s Hungarian tennis went into a precipitous decline. Just having a Hungarian in the main draw at Wimbledon was a cause for optimism. Then in 2010 things began to change with the rise of Marton Fucsovics.

The Wimbledon juniors are a showcase for rising talent 18 years of age and under. Fucsovics only played the juniors once, but made it count when he did, rolling to the title without so much as the loss of a set in 2010. The Wimbledon victory also sent him to number one in the world junior rankings. The tall, muscular Hungarian looked like he might be a breakout star for a country sorely lacking in top level tennis talent. The road to success got much rockier after Fucsovics turned pro. It took him six years just to qualify for a Grand Slam event. In 2017 he played Wimbledon for the first time as a pro.  He was quickly ousted in the first round. The same thing happened again one year later. In 2019, Fucsovics finally won a match. He came into this year’s Wimbledon with a 1-3 record. His form in tournaments prior to Wimbledon was lacking. When Fucsovics drew the rising Italian player Jannik Sinner who was seeded 19th, it looked like he would not last long on grass. Fucsovics had other ideas as he proceeded to defeat Sinner in four sets. In the 2nd round, he only played two sets before his opponent, Jiri Vesely retired. Then in the 3rd round, Fucsovics managed to defeat the stalwart baseliner and #9 seed Diego Schwartmann. The wins boosted his confidence as he got ready to face his personal nemesis and stiffest test yet, the Russian Andrey Rublev in the 4th round.

Rocket shot – Marton Fucsovics in the fourth round at Wimbledon 2021

Breaking Back – Defying The Odds
Fucsovics had reason to be worried going into his match with Rublev. His worries can be summed up in five words, Paris, Rotterdam, Doha, Dubai, and Miami. Over the past 10 months, Rublev had defeated Fucsovics five times at those tournaments. The Hungarian had only been able to take a single set in five matches. Fucsovics and Rublev had met indoors and outdoors, on clay, carpet, and hardcourts, on three continents and yet the result was always the same, a victory for Rublev. Fucsovics set out to change this by getting off to a fast start in their match at Wimbledon. He came out serving rockets at Rublev. The Russian scarcely knew what hit him. Fucsovics put in 78% of his first serves in the opening set and won every one of these points. He also broke Rublev’s serve early. After winning the first set, Fucsovics’ energy level seemed to drop, he lost focus and Rublev imposed his game on the Hungarian once again. The Russian managed a break of serve early in the set. He soon took both the second and third sets. It looked like Fuscovics was headed for a sixth straight loss to the fifth ranked Russian. And then everything changed.

Fucsovics did not just come out in the fourth set on fire, he was positively scorching. He took the set at love and then jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the fifth. After winning his ninth consecutive game, it looked like he finally had a handle on Rublev. In line with the rest of this rollercoaster match though, the Russian broke Fucsovics to get back on serve. Then Fucsovics broke back to assume what should have been a commanding lead. The only problem was that he still had to serve for the match. Sure enough, Rublev made it to break point, but Fucsovics won an extremely tense rally to get back to deuce. Two points later it was game, set and match to Fucsovics. He led out a shout of exhilaration and clenched his fist. He had finally made it to a Grand Slam quarterfinal. The first Hungarian to do it in 40 years and of course, the first one to make it this far at Wimbledon since Asboth’s charmed run in 1948.

The winner takes it all – Marton Fucsovics at Wimbledon 2021

Playing Favorites – Nothing To Lose
There is no rest for Fucsovics now. He has little time to enjoy his breakthrough accomplishment. In the quarterfinals he will face the best player in the world, Novak Djokovic. The Serb is going for his 20th Grand Slam title and still has a chance to be the first man in over a half century to win the Grand Slam, (winning all four major titles in a single calendar year). While Djokovic is heavily favored, Fucsovics faces little pressure. No one expects him to win. If he did, it would be a huge upset. Then again, Fucsovics has already defied the odds several times at this Wimbledon fortnight. Perhaps he can do so again.


The Future Was Now – Buda: One Last Shot At Tennis Glory (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #25)

In dreams begin possibilities. And so it was many years ago that my best friend and I attended a professional tennis tournament in North Carolina. This was as close as either of us would get to realizing our childhood dream of playing professional tennis. As a substitute for this dream, seeing pro players up close was almost as satisfying. Men from all over the world had come to vie for the U.S Clay Court Championship. That included players from a wide swath of Europe and South America. These players had a lifestyle we envied, globetrotting in search of sporting glory. At least it seemed that way until we watched several of them practice for hours on end. Hitting the ball cleaner and crisper in a single stroke than either of us ever had in our lives. Our dreams did not die the day we saw this, but they were dealt a heavy blow. It was better to finish college and go into a less taxing career field, because professional tennis looked like way too much work.

Serving Notice – Futures Tournament in Buda

Improbable Odds – The Final Frontier
While our dream faded as we moved on with life, both of us kept a keen interest in the pro game. This dream had been more than just playing the pro tour, it was also to visit glamorous and mysterious European cities during the clay court season. These would come to include tournaments held in Budapest and Bucharest, Prague and Umag among other locales in Eastern Europe. We always told ourselves that sometime in the foreseeable future we would follow the tour across Europe. It was a dream that up until now has yet to come true. There was one exception though. This happened when I managed to spend half a day at a tournament in Budapest. And this was not just any tournament, forget the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) World Tour or even the second tier Challenger tour. Instead, I went to the lowest of the low in professional men’s tennis terms, what were once known as satellite tournaments and are now called Futures.

Futures tournaments are the refuge of up and comers, never have beens and never will bes, those still living their dreams against improbable, if not impossible odds. Men who are on the very fringes of the pro tennis establishment, hoping against hope for a shot at glory. While staying in Budapest I talked my wife into going with me to a tennis club in Buda where a Futures tournament was in progress. Prize money for the event was $15,000, not for the winner, but the entire field. Money was likely of secondary consideration to those playing. What they were really after was valuable ATP ranking points. Those points were the difference between falling off the tour and climbing the rankings upward to Challenger tournaments where prize money rises into six figures.

Holding Court – At the Lowest Level in Buda

The Lowest Level – Warm Body Syndrome
Going to see a Futures tournaments for the first time left me wondering just how good the tennis on offer would be. Would there be any discernable difference between players ranked between #300 and #600 in the world or lower? Futures tournaments do not exactly get great players. Case in point, I once received a place in the qualifying draw of a Futures event in Turkey. This was after an inquiry about the tournament, not asking to play in it. I was shocked to be offered a place in qualifying, so shocked in fact that I did not play the event. What I learned was that satellite tournaments will give almost anyone who believes they can make the pro tour a chance to compete. The warm body syndrome is alive and well in tennis’ minor leagues. In Buda, I would realize that satellite tournaments may be filled with marginal prospects, but many of them are excellent players.

No ticket was needed, seating was open, and people milled around the tennis club. The atmosphere was anything but electric. This was the unknown side of men’s professional tennis, few glamorous girlfriends, family members or entourages were to be seen. It was just a bunch of tennis players scrambling for their careers across clay courts. Most of the spectators were coaches and managers. One gentleman who looked like he was born in a black leather jacket eyed the competition intensely. From time to time he looked at me and my wife with a penetrating stare. This man looked like the sort of henchmen that would be part of a protection racket or an oligarch in training. Obviously, he had some sort of connection to one of the players, but I could never quite figure out which one. He looked more ready to do battle than the players on the court.

The players were a study in contrasts. Every style of play imaginable was represented. There were booming servers, blistering groundstrokers, those who rushed the net and others who never left the baseline. Some of the players tried to knock the fuzz off the ball, while others put excessive spin on each shot, hitting the proverbial moon balls in near perfect arcs. The latter were especially entrancing since they stymied more powerful players with a combination of finesse and patience. It was akin to yawning while looking down the barrel of a bazooka. The level of skill on display was tremendous. What these players seemed to lack was consistency. Rallies often ended in errors. It would have been maddening to play a point with such aplomb only to make a sudden unforced error. This trait reminded me of what I knew from playing the sport myself, once you have reached a certain level of aptitude, tennis is mostly mental.

Rising In The Rankings – Filip Krajinovic (Credit: R191)

Parting Shots – The Dream That Never Dies
I have been following tennis for years and keeping up with many obscure Eastern European players, including Hungarian ones. Watching the players, I was surprised that none of them were recognizable to me. We only spent half a day at the tournament, other travel commitments pulled us away. It was not until later that I found out who won the tournament. A Pole by the name of Piotr Gadmoski edged the Serb, Filip Krajinovic in three tough sets. For Gadmoski it would be the highlight of a short lived career. The event in Hungary was the third and final Futures tournament he won in 2013. Those were the only three titles of his career. Less than two years later he was off the tour.

It was a very different story for Krajinovic. The tournament in Budapest was the fourth Futures final he lost in 2013. Only 21 years old at the time, he continued his ascension in the years to follow. In 2017 Krajinovic’s career soared to new heights when he won five Challenger tournaments and improbably came through qualifying to make the final of the ATP World Tour Paris Masters. Krajinovic has carved out quite a career for himself, rising as high as 26th in the rankings. At present, he is holding steady at #39. The Futures tour is either the making or breaking of careers. For Gadmoski, that week in Budapest was the pinnacle of his career. For Krajinovic it was a stepping stone. For me, it was an opportunity to relive a childhood dream, one that has never really died and refuses to fade away.

Click here for: Old & New Frontiers – The Heathen’s Gate: Roman Austria (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #26)


Coming Of Age – Attila Balazs: Getting Older, Getting Better

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.

Coming of Age - Attila Balazs at Umag in 2019

Coming of Age – Attila Balazs at Umag in 2019

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.

False Summit - Attila Balazs at the Bucharest ATP event in 2012

False Summit – Attila Balazs at the Bucharest ATP event in 2012

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.

The Consummate Pro - Attila Balazs

The Consummate Pro – Attila Balazs

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.

The Spirit & Sadness Of Victory -Laslo Djere: Triumphing In Tragic Circumstances

Tennis is a lonely sport. When a player steps onto the court they are all by themselves. Even the best professional players, who have coaches, trainers and sports psychologists, can only glance helplessly at their entourages once a match begins. Verbal and moral support is kept at a distance. A player is left to rely solely on their wits and skills. They become a lone battler whose only solace is that they are opposed by another lone battler. For those on the pro tennis tour this loneliness often extends beyond the court. Many of those ranked outside the top 100 spend much of their time traveling to tournaments alone, dining alone, living in hotels alone and spending their time in foreign countries alone. Home is a succession of cities they never really get to see. There is little glamor to be found in this life of loneliness. I was reminded of this a few days ago when I once again came across the name of Laslo Djere (Laszlo Gyore). This time, I was astonished to discover that he was the fifth seed at an ATP tournament in Marrakech, Morocco.

Prior to March, Djere had been a young up and coming player slowly on the rise. Then all the sudden he was a seeded player at a tour event. Discovering this, led me to do some research on his meteoric rise. Djere’s ascent in the ranking was due to some fantastic results during the first three months of 2019 which lifted him all the way to #32 in the world. This made him the top ethnic Hungarian tennis player in the world, as he soared past Marton Fuscovics. Unlike Fucsovics, who has been making Hungarian tennis history during the past year, Djere is relatively unknown among those who follow Hungarian tennis. That is because he grew up outside of Hungary in the predominantly ethnic Hungarian town of Senta, located in the northern part of Serbia. This has made Djere something of outlier in his homeland just as he is in Hungary. It is an interesting situation since he is a minority in a nation that is dominated by Serbs. And yet this is not the most remarkable aspect of his tennis career and recent rise. That is because Djere has managed to climb up the tennis rankings in the loneliest possible circumstances. Tragically, neither of Djere’s parents are still alive to see their son’s rapid ascent in the world of men’s professional tennis.

The loneliness of life on the men’s professional tennis tour has been compounded for Laslo Djere. His father died of cancer seven years ago long before his son became a pro. Then only two months ago, the same disease took the life of Djere’s mother. To lose one parent as a young adult is a grievous blow, to lose them both is a tragedy. One can only imagine the grief Djere suffered at the beginning of this year. The loss for him and his sister of that familial support system which is so critical to the security and stability of a family is difficult to comprehend. The fact that a grieving Djere faced this difficult life situation with resolve and courage shows the quality of his character. That he produced the greatest results of his career is even more remarkable. He did this half a world away from his homeland, at two consecutive events in Brazil, turning the first part of 2019 from a personal tragedy to professional triumph. Unfortunately, these victories can mitigate, but never heal his grief.

The Spirit Endures - Laslo Djere

The Spirit Endures – Laslo Djere (Credit: si.robi)

Tempering Optimism  – A Boost of Confidence
In September 2017, Djere first entered the top 100. Then his movement up the rankings stalled. For a year and a half, his ranking hovered between #85 and #110. His results were good enough to maintain a decent ranking. Conversely, they did little to raise hopes of renewed promise. The beginning of Djere’s 2019 tennis campaign was lackluster to say the least. In January and early February, he lost four consecutive matches, including one where he was forced to retire. This was understandable. Djere had his mind on much more important things back home. When he did reengage mentally with the tour, there was nothing that portended favorable results. The best hope was for Djere to get back on his favorite surface, red clay. A swing through South America in February offered him just that opportunity. He showed up in the seaside, carnival loving city of Rio de Janeiro for the first of two tournaments in Brazil. Any optimism Djere might have had was likely tempered when he glanced at the draw.

This was because he had drawn the top seed, Dominic Thiem from Austria. Thiem is a formidable foe for any player on the pro tour, especially on red clay. In 2018, Thiem made his first Grand Slam final on red clay at the French Open. To say Djere was an underdog would be an understatement. No one would have known that by the final score. Djere laid a drubbing on Thiem, beating him easily in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3. It was his first victory over a top ten player and served as a huge confidence boost for the coming rounds. He went on to win his next four matches and the tournament without the loss of a single set. Djere’s performance was extraordinary, both because it was unexpected and utterly dominant. The triumph came with a heavy heart. A hint of sadness seeped through during the trophy presentation when Djere dedicated the victory to his parents who had sacrificed so much for him to succeed. It was obvious that even though his parents were not with him physically, they would always be with him spiritually.

The Heart Of A Champion- Laslo Djere in Rio

The Heart Of A Champion- Laslo Djere in Rio (Credit: Laslo Djure Instagram)

Family Honor  – A Vast Potential
It is not uncommon for a player who manages an astonishing performance one week to suffer a letdown the next. It would not have been surprising to see Djere lose early in Sao Paulo after his title winning run in Rio. Unlike the week before, he was tested early and often. In each of his first three matches, Djere was taken to a third set before he prevailed. He made it all the way to the semifinals. It was a fine showing coming on the heels of a magnificent one. After the two tournaments in Brazil, Djere’s ranking jumped 62 spots, from #94 to #32 in the world. With these successes he kickstarted his career and began to realize his vast potential. Whether he is well on his way to greater things only time will tell. More important than any tournament victories or rise in the ranking is the fact that Djere continues to honor his parent’s faith in his ability. That is because he triumphs over tragedy every time he steps on the court.

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.