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.

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.