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.

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

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

Levente Gödry - one ATP ranking point away from oblivion

Levente Gödry – one ATP ranking point away from oblivion

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

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

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

Attila Balazs on the comeback tour

Attila Balazs on the comeback tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laslo Đere - anything is possible

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

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

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