WASHINGTON, February 26, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
Plenty of positive highlights throughout the tennis world have lit up my Tennis Twitter over the past few days. In a February week in which former World No. 1 Serena Williams attended the Academy Awards in Hollywood, where she both dazzled on the red carpet and introduced “A Star is Born,” and Roger Federer arrived in the Emirates rested and ready to chase after his 100th career tour title at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, it turned out the weekend belonged not only to up-and-coming stars Stefanos Tsitsipas and Belinda Bencic, thanks to their title wins in Marseille and Dubai, but also to a pair of new faces going places, Radu Albot and Laslo Djere, who each won their first tour-level titles in inspiring fashion across the Atlantic, in Delray Beach and Rio de Janeiro.
Triumph for Bencic and Tsitsipas
In the first WTA Premier 5 event of the year, a healthy and hearty Bencic, just 21, finally untapped her potential that’s been shelved so often by injury. She triumphed over four straight Top 10 opponents –Aryna Sabelenka, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina and, in the final, Petra Kvitova – en route to winning her third career title in Dubai. Meanwhile, in Marseille, Tsitsipas, 20, won the second ATP title of his young career. Now, he finds himself on the verge of breaking into the Top 10 no doubt with his sights set on greater achievements. He’s a Next Gen ATP star with Now Gen aspirations. As the top seed at the Open 13 Provence, Tsitsipas didn’t lose a set, and he played solidly all week long while boosting his win-loss record to 11-4 this year.
However, as impressive as Bencic and Tsitsipas were in lifting well-earned trophies over the weekend, it was extremely encouraging to see both Albot and Djere win on the ATP Tour for the first time. It’s said that every tennis player has a story to tell and when you learn about Albot’s and Djere’s, you’ll discover that each is filled with plenty of joy and heartbreak – and breakthrough moments, too.
Albot writes history
At Delray Beach, Albot saved three championship points and defeated British qualifier Daniel Evans, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7), to become the first-ever player from Moldova, an Eastern European country landlocked between Romania and Ukraine, with just 3.5 million inhabitants, to win an ATP Tour title. At about the same time in Rio, Djere built upon his first-round victory over World No. 8 Dominic Thiem and went on to beat Next Gen star Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada in the final, 6-3, 7-5, to win a 500-point jackpot on red clay.
After his victory, Albot, whose nickname is “The Machine,” expressed what it meant to be a first-time champion on the ATP Tour. “It feels unbelievable. You work so much. You work your whole life, your whole career, and at the end you win a tournament,” he said.
“This is just a great feeling. I think it’s difficult to put into words.”
During a recent interview with ATPTour.com, Albot, 29, recalled how he took up tennis as a youngster at his father’s suggestion.
“When I started playing tennis, I was not following it on TV. It was just fun for me, running after balls, running around the court, playing games besides tennis,” said Albot. “Just more like a fun activity, it wasn’t like a serious sport.”
Once he started to get more serious about tennis, Albot said he followed Russian players such as Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin and very much liked Roger Federer and David Ferrer. “I thought I was playing a little bit like David with my game style. I really admired him. When I got on the Tour, I tried to organize practice with him as much as I could,” he said.
“The first time you have a little bit of emotions, you’re excited to practice and to give your best in a practice. It’s a little bit like a dream. You see the guy for years on TV and suddenly you’re practicing with him on the other side of the court, so that’s really cool and you could put it as an achievement in your career.”
By winning Delray Beach, Albot’s ranking shot up to No. 52, which is a career-best mark. He’s the only Moldovan to crack the ATP Top 100. Now, the 29-year-old is setting the bar for others from his homeland to take up the sport.
“I’m carrying the flag everywhere in the world. This means a lot,” said Albot. “I hope some kids (from Moldova) can watch tennis … and I can be their inspiration.”
Emotional Laslo Djere
Meanwhile, after Djere beat the 18-year-old Auger-Aliassime in a breakout final for both players, the Serbian gave what one reporter described as an “absolutely inspiring speech,” taking about the death of both of his parents, during the trophy presentation. Djere choked back tears when he shared his emotional backstory. He spoke about his mother, Hajnalka, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer when he was 15, and died two years later. “I lost my mom seven years ago, so I want to dedicate this (victory) to her, and also to my dad. I lost him two months ago.” Djere’s father, Caba, died in December.
“My parents had the biggest impact on me and because of them, I am who I am today. I want to thank them. I hope they are watching me now,” said Djere. His inspiring story left many in the crowd, including his coach, Boris Conkic, wiping away tears.
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic tweeted congratulations to his fellow Serbian:
Huge congratulations to Laslo for his amazing win at @RioOpenOficial & his maiden @ATP_Tour trophy. You have demonstrated a great deal of resilience & fighting spirit in difficult times. Thank you for your honesty & transparency in sharing your emotions about your parents 🙏❤🇷🇸 https://t.co/8ozI498Lqs
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) 25. Februar 2019
Djere’s heartfelt words were appreciated around the world and inspired even the mercurial Australian Nick Kyrgios to tweet, “Well done champion, we are with you.”
David Law, co-host of “The Tennis Podcast” said he was impressed by the reaction of other players on social media. “Whether you’ve lost parents or whether you haven’t, I imagine you can put yourself as a human being in this guy’s shoes and try to imagine what it must feel like. There can be nothing worse. I found it quite moving how everyone was just reacting to his reaction. Congratulations to (Djere) on his victory. It was really quite a scene to witness.”
As a former top junior, the 23-year-old Djere has been working diligently to put his days on the ATP Challengers Tour permanently behind him, where he compiled a respectable 86-67 win-loss record and won two titles. By capturing Rio, Djere’s ranking skyrocketed from No. 90 to No. 37, which will definitely earn him direct entry into plenty of future ATP tour-level events. With the spring European clay season still to come, Djere could be one worth paying attention to leading up to Roland Garros. By the way, his Rio earnings for winning this ATP 500-level tournament added up to $369,000 (U.S. dollars), about five times greater than what he had earned so far in 2019.
“I’ve been dreaming of this moment my whole life,” said Djere following his breakthrough victory. “I want to be a guy who inspires others, someone who shows you can be successful even if things are difficult in your life.”