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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

History Almost Repeats Itself – Marton Fucsovics & Hungary’s Davis Cup Defeat Of Slovakia

In 1980, led by the rocket forehand of Ivan Lendl, Czechoslovakia became the first Eastern European nation to win the Davis Cup. During the eighties Czechoslovakia produced many excellent players including all time-great Lendl, the mercurial Miloslav Mecir and Tomas Smid. After the Iron Curtain fell the country split during the Velvet Divorce of 1993. Development of top level professional tennis talent continued. The Czech Republic has won two more Davis Cups (2012 and 2013) since the split while the less tennis mad Slovaks managed to make it all the way to the 2005 final. The center of the men’s tennis world in Eastern Europe has now moved south to the Balkans, where several Grand Slam champions (Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic) have been developed. In between these two tennis hubs lies Hungary. The Magyars have a very poor record in the Open era of men’s professional tennis (since 1968). Other than the superb Balazs Taroczy, Hungary has produced only one other top 50 player during the Open era.

Marton Fucsovics - after a Davis Cup victory

Marton Fucsovics – after a Davis Cup victory

A Fetish For The Obscure – Hungarian Men’s Tennis
Only those tennis aficionados who have a fetish for the obscure can recall the name of Peter Szoke, a Hungarian who lost in the 1971 German Open final and two years later climbed to #47 in the world before turning his focus to doubles. No Hungarian has come anywhere close to matching Taroczy for titles (13) or highest singles ranking (#12). Since Taroczy retired in 1990, Attila Savolt and Sandor Noszaly have been the only Hungarians who have managed to break into the top 100. The current crop of Hungarian men’s tennis players has failed to attain Savolt or Noszaly’s meager level of success. In Davis Cup, the Hungarians have produced an endless succession of underwhelming performances. They have made the World Group twice, losing both times in the first round. Their last appearance was over two decades ago in 1996. Thus it was with great surprise that news arrived this past weekend of the Hungarian Davis Cup team producing a stunning upset of Slovakia. Playing an away tie in Bratislava the Hungarians managed to prevail 3-1 during Africa/Europe Group One play. The star of the tie was Marton Fucsovics who won both of his singles matches and was also a part of the winning doubles tandem. Fucsovics was an unlikely candidate for hero, especially in light of his play last year during a home tie in Budapest also against Slovakia.

In mid-July of 2016 Hungary faced Slovakia in Davis Cup for the first time ever. The tie was played on red clay in Budapest. The advantage of playing at home, turned out to be no such of a thing for Hungary. It was little surprise when the Hungarians lost the first match. Peter Nagy was ranked several hundred spots lower then Slovak Andrej Martin who quickly dispatched him in straight sets. The second match was the critical one. Fucsovics faced Joszef Kovalik, a player ranked forty-one spots above him. To compound matters, red clay is Kovalik’s favorite surface, while Fucsovics prefers grass or a fast hard court. The choice of the wrong surface for the home team proved decisive. Fucsovics split the first two sets with Kovalik, but the Slovak managed to eke out the 3rd set in a tiebreaker 7 to 5. After that, Fucsovics will was broken as was his serve multiple times in the fourth set. Kovalik coasted to victory. The next day Fucsovics was part of the losing doubles team as Slovakia completed the rout. Hungary had managed to win a grand total of one set in three matches. Fucsovics may have been Hungary’s best player at the time, but the tie had proved that he was no match for the Slovaks or did it?

From Champion To Journeyman – The Rise & Fall Of Fucsovics
In tennis parlance, Marton Fucsovics is a journeyman. He first rose to prominence by winning the Wimbledon junior title in 2010. Soon thereafter he was ranked as the top junior in the world by the International Tennis Federation. Later that same year he turned pro, but did not meet with anywhere near the same success of his junior career. In 2013 he won two challengers, including an indoor event in Andria, Italy where he defeated three of the top four seeds all in straight sets. In October 2014 he achieved his highest ranking ever at #135. From that point he began a slow, but steady slide, bottoming out at #275 in September 2015 while suffering from neck and back problems. Fucsovics has climbed back to his current ranking of #163, which means he is good enough to compete at the challenger level, but not quite up to the regular tour. He is certainly not the first world junior number one to have found the pro tour to be extremely difficult. Now at the age of twenty-five the question is whether Fucsovics reached his peak several years ago. The answer would likely have been yes, but his performance this past weekend has raised hopes once again.

History can repeat itself, but only up to a certain point. Fucsovics proved this when he found himself in exactly the same position in 2017 as he did last year against Slovakia in Davis Cup. Just as in 2016 Hungary lost the first match of the tie. Fucsovics then faced Jozef Kovalik once again. He won the first set and lost the second. At this point in 2016, the match had turned in Kovalik’s favor. This time though, Fucsovics made history rather than repeating it. The difference in the match was his return of serve. He actually won a greater percentage of points returning Kovalik’s first serve (42%) rather than an easier second serve (34%), a rare feat that decided the match in his favor.  In the doubles, he teamed up with Attila Balzas for a five set victory. Hungary suddenly was one win away from an upset.

Márton Fucsovics - leader of the 2017 Hungarian Davis Cup team

Márton Fucsovics – leader of the 2017 Hungarian Davis Cup team (Credit: Diliff)

A Surprise In Slovakia – Hungarian Tennis Reemerges
Then on the final day he faced his greatest test against Martin Klizan, ranked #35 in the world and playing in front of his home fans. Klizan took the first set, but Fucsovics ran off the last three sets in succession. He relied heavily upon his serve, finishing with 18 aces and winning 83% of his first serve points. He also feasted on Klizan’s second serve, winning 68% of those points. It all added up to a surprising victory for the Hungarians, almost entirely due to the play of Fucsovics, on the road no less. What had changed in the space of six months for Fucsovics? Obviously he had raised the level of both of his service and return game. Confidence is a strange thing, but it snowballed for him during the tie. He was also helped by the Slovak decision to play the tie on a fast, indoor hard court, Fucsovics favorite surface. Now the question will be if these three victories lead him to greater heights. Hungary has been waiting a long time for another top 100 player. Will it be Fucsovics? After his latest victories there is reason for optimism, a rarity in Hungarian tennis.

Maximizing The Moment – József Asbóth’s Achievement: The 1947 French Open & Eastern European Tennis Greatness

Growing up, my first introduction to Eastern Europe was through men’s professional tennis. While watching matches I learned that there were nations such as Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland and Hungary. These were the homelands of Ivan Lendl, Ilie Nastase, Wojtek Fibak and Balázs Taróczy. I also learned that there was an Iron Curtain that divided Europe. Behind this curtain was an entirely different world, a controlled environment where faceless officials decided what people could or could not do. The Soviet Union was little more to me than two things, the place where Andrei Chesnokov was from and a system that took most of his prize money. Eastern European tennis players brought the words, defector and dissident into my vocabulary. My idea of communism was not Brezhnev or Gorbachev it was Lendl, though my assumptions about him ended up being totally wrong.

Now I can see the ATP Tour was the beginning of a lifelong interest in Eastern Europe. So many great players have come out of the region, both male and female, that it led me to wonder who the first great Eastern European tennis player was. Long before Lendl or Nastase won Grand Slam titles, there were other trailblazers. The first great Eastern European tennis player – a Hungarian by the name of József Asbóth – is now an obscure enigma, all but lost to tennis history. He came at a time when top class tennis was just getting restarted in the years following World War II. He deserves to be much better known for his achievement as the first Eastern European (and only Hungarian) to win a singles Grand Slam title. The way he won that title is just as amazing as the fact that he did.

József Asbóth in action prior to World War II

József Asbóth in action prior to World War II

Courting & Skirting War – The Rise of  József Asbóth
József Asbóth was born during the First World War and had his career interrupted by a second one. The son of a railway worker in the far western Hungarian city of Szombathely, Asbóth came of age in the tumultuous interwar years of a Hungary, riven by the loss of two-thirds of its territory in the post- World War I peace settlement. This was a time when Hungary could no longer call itself part of an empire. Instead it was a medium sized nation surrounded by enemies on multiple sides. One way Hungary could still flex its muscle internationally was in sport. In both the 1928 and 1936 Summer Olympics Hungary finished in the top 10 medal count. Sport was an opportunity for Hungarians to achieve some semblance of greatness. József Asbóth was likely not immune to this desire. At the tender age of 20 Asbóth made his debut in international competition, losing a Davis Cup doubles match to the powerhouse German team. The next year he almost singlehandedly defeated Hungary’s hated archrivals, Romania in Europe Group play. He came from behind in both his singles match, on the road in Bucharest no less, to win each of them in five sets. Later that same year Asbóth won his first Grand Slam match at the French Open. He also made it into the main draw at Wimbledon. In 1940 he won three international tournaments, all in Italy.  Asbóth seemed to have a bright future ahead of him.  Then Hungary became inextricably involved in World War II.

Asbóth’s career was put on hold. He would not play any international tournaments outside of Hungary for five years. Truth be told, he was lucky to survive the war and even luckier that his tennis talent had not deserted him. With the Red Army occupying Hungary, the post-war period was filled with tension and strife. It would only be a few years before the Soviets would shut down all vestiges of democracy in the country. During the interim, Asbóth was allowed the freedom to play abroad. After an eight year absence he reappeared on the Grand Slam stage, making it to the third round at Wimbledon in 1947. A couple of weeks later he was in Paris at the French Open (in 1947 the French open was played after Wimbledon) primed to make a run for the title on his favorite surface, red clay. He was seeded fifth, the result of a title at Nice and semifinal showing at Monte Carlo earlier in the spring. These results were good, but nothing like what was about to happen.

József Asbóth won 31 tournaments and is still the only Hungarian to win a Grand Slam Singles Title

József Asbóth won 31 tournaments and is still the only Hungarian to win a Grand Slam Singles Title

From Oblivion To Greatness & Back Again
To say that Asbóth steamrolled through the French Open field in 1947 is an understatement. In six matches he lost only one set and a total of 52 games. In the semifinals he destroyed the #1 seed, American Tom Brown, relinquishing only five games. Asbóth’s run through the tournament was otherworldly. He won two more matches at the French Open that year then he had won in his three previous Grand Slam tournament appearances. He had waited years to play the tournament a second time and then dominated the field. This was unheard of. Asbóth ’s French Open career after his 1947 title turned out to be just as astonishing, but in a very different way. He would not play another match at the tournament until 1954. His title defense was a non-starter, as he was unable to take the court in 1948, losing in a walkover. This was a shame because his performance at Wimbledon that year proved he was still in fine form. He became the first and only Hungarian to make the semifinals on the finely manicured lawns at the All England Club.

From these heights Asbóth ’s play began to fall, as much because of officialdom as any deterioration in his game. To play Wimbledon Asbóth had to have the tennis loving Swedish King Gustaf V guarantee a personal warrant on his behalf. As Hungary succumbed to the Stalinist rule of the dictator Matyas Rakosi, Asbóth’s international appearances became fewer and fewer. Only after Rakosi was ousted from power did Asbóth start to appear in European tournaments again with regularity. In 1954, he took the court at the French Open for the first time since the 1947 title match. He easily defeated a 17-year old Australian by the name of Roy Emerson. Emerson would go on to win more Grand Slam singles than any player of the amateur era. Asbóth was in his late 30’s when he reappeared at the French. He would stay competitive with the top players until he turned forty. He then helped develop young tennis talent in Belgium. Later he moved to Germany, where he would work as a trainer until he died in 1986.

József Asbóth - the 1947 French Open Champion

József Asbóth – the 1947 French Open Champion

An Invisible Champion & Eastern Europe’s Rise To Tennis Greatness
Asbóth’s twenty years on the tennis circuit was characterized by fits and starts. Interruption by a world war, imposition of Stalinism on his homeland and the failed Revolution of 1956, were all events that coincided with Asbóth’s tennis career. He never had an opportunity to maximize his talent like so many others. His tennis was only able escape his nation’s troubles for a few years. During those moments his game soared. During his career, he won 31 tournaments with one of those being that epic run to the French Open crown in 1947. It set the stage for greater things to come for tennis in Eastern Europe. From Jaroslav Drobney to Jan Kodes through Nastase and Lendl up to Novak Djokovic today, the region has produced some of the greatest tennis champions. And that list of champions starts with the son of a railway worker from Szombathely, Hungary. József Asbóth, the Hungarian who forged a remarkable tennis career and French Open title run against incredible odds.

The Hungarian King Of Holland – Balázs Taróczy: Tennis’ Ultimate Aberration

Some would call it a great accomplishment, while others might say it was an aberration, whatever the case Balázs Taróczy was once the Hungarian King of Holland. Not a king in the monarchical sense of the word, but in a sporting sense. Taróczy was the King of the Dutch Open Tennis Championships (also known as Hilversum) an event he dominated from 1976 through 1983. He won the singles championships six times and the doubles five times. At a glance, Taróczy’s record at the tournament was excellent, but would not seem to be worthy of special notice. The Dutch Open was always a mid-level tournament ignored by top ten players. It was not as though Taróczy was giant slaying Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas or Ivan Lendl during his halcyon years at Hilversum. He was taking down lighter weights, along with a few top twenty players along the way.

Taróczy’s feat at Hilversum is astonishing because he was able to dominate at the tournament for years. He won six of his thirteen singles titles during his career there. Only the very best players have managed to win the same tournament that many times. Taróczy forte was not singles. He was a much more accomplished doubles player, one of the best in the world for years. In tandem with his Swiss partner Heinz Gunthardt, he won Grand Slam titles at the French Open and Wimbledon. Those titles put his name in the history books forever, after all Grand Slam tournaments are the crème de la crème of men’s professional tennis. Nevertheless, his Dutch Open record merits a closer look. There has never been anything like Taróczy success at Hilversum – or a similar type of tournament – from a good, but not great tennis player.

Balázs Taróczy

Balázs Taróczy – in action on his favorite surface of red clay

The Few & The Forgotten – Magyar Kings of the Court
Hungarian male tennis stars are few and forgotten. The Magyars have only produced one Grand Slam singles tournament winner, József Asbóth, who took the French Open title in 1947. Asbóth the son of railway workers, eventually migrated to the west in order to escape the Iron Curtain. The only commemorations of Asbóth that exist today are a street named after him in the western Hungarian city of Szombathely, where he was born. There is also a plaque in his honor that can be found in Budapest’s 11th district. His name will never be mentioned in the same breath as say Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, though he has as many French Open singles titles as the two combined. The best name for a Hungarian professional tennis player has to be Attila Savolt. The name sounds fierce and aggressive. It is a pity that Savolt’s tennis was less than stellar. He topped out with a world ranking of 68 in 2002. His winning percentage on the main tour was a woeful 39%, but at least his name was memorable.

Taróczy is by far the greatest Hungarian tennis player of the modern era (since 1968). He won 39 titles, two-thirds of which were in doubles. His favorite surface was the red clay he had grown up on. It is not surprising that he won all of his singles titles on dirt. Of course his affinity for red clay was one of the main reasons he did so well at the Dutch Open. What were the other reasons? No one really has answer. In a February 2010 blog post for Tennis Magazine, journalist Peter Bodo – an ethnic Hungarian born in Austria – gave his thoughts, “Taróczy is a long-time friend of mine; some of you may remember him as the prematurely balding Hungarian stylist with the sweeping, sweet, one-handed slice backhand and heavy serve…he collected almost half of those (singles titles) at one tournament – Hilversum, where he won at six times. What was the secret? Got me. Got him, too. He just liked it there, and after he won the title he was always welcomed back like a conquering hero.”

Balázs Taróczy at Hilversum in 1981

The Hungarian King Of Holland – Balázs Taróczy at Hilversum in 1981 (Credit: Rob Bogaerts/Anefo)

A Conquest Of Consistency – Catching Fire
Taróczy was definitely the king of Hilversum, the likes of which was never seen before or after his years at the tournament. Strange as it may seem, Taroczy’s multiple conquests at Hilversum had a less than agreeable start. In 1976, during his first match, he lost the first set to Martin Robinson, a Brit who never cracked the top 100. He then caught fire, relinquishing only two games over the final two sets. He did not lose another set until the final, when he came back from a two set deficit to win the championship. The next year he lost in the first round to the 174th ranked John Marks by the wild score of 0-6, 6-4, 9-7. He would not lose again until six years later.

Taróczy not only won the next four singles titles in succession, but the doubles titles in each of those years as well. In the first of those years, 1978, he destroyed Corrado Barazzuti, the number 9 ranked player in the world at the time, allowing the Italian a mere five games over three sets in the semifinals. In the final he defeated the greatest Dutch player of all time, Tom Okker. In 1979 he lost five sets, but still managed to win the tournament. In 1980 he lost no sets and only 27 games in five matches. In 1981 he defeated lifelong doubles partner Gunthardt in the final, coming from a set down to win his 20th match in a row at Hilversum. In 1982 he won his 5th title in a row there. It was an incredible run. Finally in 1983 Taróczy was defeated, but not before he made it all the way to the final. He carried a 29 match win streak into the final against Tomas Smid. The Czechoslovak was too strong, as he took Taróczy down in straight sets. The 1983 final would be the last singles match Taróczy would play at Hilversum.

Balázs Taróczy - always close to the clay

Balázs Taróczy – always close to the clay

Among the Greats – Taróczy’s Achievement In Retrospect
Balázs Taróczy finished his career at the Dutch Open with the astounding record of 34 – 2 (94.4%). The trophy could have retired to its rightful place, in the clutches of Taróczy’s hands where it was held aloft for so many successive summers. Possible explanations for his uncanny success at the tournament include comfort, confidence, streakiness and surface. He was certainly in his element on those balmy July days at Hilversum. It was a case of a sportsman rising to the occasion year after year after year after year after year after year, one long run-on title. His feat has rarely been surpassed. The list of tennis players who have won the same event at least six times are, Rafael Nadal, Guillermo Vilas, Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Novak Djokovic and Balazs Taróczy. Taróczy’s incredible record at the Dutch Open places him among the greats and ranks as one of the most improbable tennis achievements ever.