If I cast my mind back a few years to when the Marion Bartoli Fan Blog began, the WTA rankings were jam-packed full of fresh teenage produce, bursting at the seams with vitality, and ready to satisfy a hungry sports consumer. In the minds of the tennis intelligentsia and business arm of the game, these young starlets were the foundations upon which the future prosperity of the WTA would be built.
Now, some 3 or 4 years later, the rapid-reaction Public Relations and Image force has been called back to base, and simply listing the names; Chakvetedze, Cornet, Golovin, Paszek, Krajicek, Vaidisova, Szavay, feels as morbid as Emily Dickinson poetry, or a memorial to those lost in battle – average age 19. Will there ever be a resurrection in the fortunes of the risers of yesteryear? Will we see a renaissance in a sport that just like the pop music industry, seems to require or crave a constant turnover of new blood in order to generate consumer interest and growth? What about the player Pete Bodo once described as the “the least well-known of this unknown generation,” Agnes Szavay? Hard to believe she will turn 22 in late December.
Agi made an astonishingly rapid rise up the ranking during 2007. Starting the year at No. 185, and ending the year a top 20 player – chiefly on the back of titles in Beijing and Palermo, plus a tremendous quarter final US Open debut. By the spring of 2008, she was on the cusp of the top 10.
The Hungarian star suddenly became a small ray of sunshine in a country short on internationally recognised sporting role models. Hungarian sport is still to this day significantly defined by legendary soccer player Puszkas, half a century after his exploits with the ‘Mighty Magyars’ and Real Madrid.
For a modest landlocked country with an unfortunate history, facing tough IMF austerity measures, and emerging from bitter civil unrest on the streets of capital city Budapest, successful sporting role models take on cosmic significance. They come to represent the aspirations of the people in times of hardship, and become emblems of personal integrity when political figures (not to put too fine a point on it) inevitably disappoint. Enter Agnes Szavay; a genial, outgoing and intelligent young woman with characteristically sculptured Hungarian features, voted Hungarian sports woman of the year… It’s a huge meta-narrative on young shoulders.
My own long time Hungarian friend would mention now and then, that she had seen Agi in this magazine or on that show, and how everyone was really excited by her stunning rise. In an email dated 26 Sept 2007 she wrote simply “Agnes Szavay is good She is among the first 20 now on the world ranklist. ”
But even as the WTA was busy conducting special video shoots of a smiling fresh young blonde on top of the Empire State building, and grocery chain Spar was busy launching a glossy TV commercial featuring Agi as the honey-trapper, things on court were beginning to take a downturn in the latter half of 2008. The Magyar prodigy went 4/9 over the summer hard court and indoor season.
Unsettled in her coaching arrangement, Agi parted company with Hungarian coaches Zoltán Kuhárszky, and József Bocskay. Persistent back problems also forced her to rework her serve. The axiom of her game had become a liability. Bocskay later referred to her obliquely as a “tennis tourist.”
By the time she returned to her homeland to play the International clay event in July of 2009, Agi had slid to No.37 in the rankings and was without a coach for several months. Agi freely admitted she was struggling for confidence. Fate couldn’t have choreographed for her what happened next, more perfectly, as she claimed the title in front of a delighted home crowd, and also in front of new coach Karl-Heinz Wetter. Things were slowly beginning to improve, or at least, the rot had been stopped.
47 year old Wetter’s resume includes 12 years with solid compatriot Jurgen Melzer, and a spell with Latvian wild man Ernests Gulbis.
“I only worked with ATP players in the past, he told the Szavay fan site, “so working with Agi was a new experience for me. It’s different, just like in real life, girls are different from boys.”
The no-nonsense Wetter also specialises as a fitness coach, but makes no special accommodations for the fairer sex when it comes to putting his player through her paces. He took Agnes altitude training in the Austrian Alps earlier this year. Wetter feels, “her fitness and mental strength have developed the most” during his first 12 months in the job.
Perhaps more than anything Wetter has brought stability and a paternal hand to Agnes, who has not been without her off court challenges in her young professional life; the separation of her parents a few years back and a variety of muscular and viral problems, including glandular fever and the aforementioned back problem are just some of the tests she has had to overcome.
With her ranking now safely ensconced in the mid 30’s for much of the past 18 months. Wetter feels that Agi’s successful defence of the Budapest title in July, followed the week after by a 5th career title on the clay of Prague, has helped her confidence. He also believes her steadily recovering serve will one day exceed 200 kmh.
Courtside for the Bartoli v Szavay match at Eastbourne this year, I had a close up view up of that serve. Yet it wasn’t the 8 aces which Szavay served that day which impressed me the most, or the perennial Fila headband, but the way she would “get her racquet under the ball in order to relieve the rally of pace, then hit a powerful deadly shot next time. She would try changing the pace mid-rally.” Even on a very windy day by the seaside at Devonshire Park, Szavay offered copious winners out wide, cheeky drop shots from the baseline, and displayed touch, slice, spin and every articulate and sensitive racquet skill in her tennis vocabulary. In the end she gave a Wimbledon finalist and one of the very best grass court players in tennis, all she could ask for over three hard fought sets.
Maybe Agi could have been a bit less passive here, or chose a better shot there, but in all fairness that would be an overly critical ‘expert’ type analysis. The truth is I left my seat with an abiding respect for her contribution to the match. If Szavay takes the best elements from her performance that day, and maintains the level over the required distance, then she will soon convert those close run defeats (which Wetter laments) into victories.
If Agnes Szavay is successful in her goal of returning to the top 20, it will not only provide a boost to her avid group of fans, but also a nice little boost for a homeland she cares so much about. After the appalling toxic sludge accident at the MAL aluminium plant in Kolontar, which hit news casts worldwide last month, Agi and her fan club were quick to organise fund raising for the victims, and get involved in relief support with volunteers on the ground. That’s Agi.
So top 20? Yes, she can do it. She has to knuckle down, stay healthy, and keep body and mind together. There is nothing wrong with this young lady. The goods are there, and I for one will be keeping an eye on the fortunes of the young Hungarian next season.
Agi, never give up !