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.