Tennis Prose



When Hrbaty Hired Fans At US Open

By Scoop Malinowski

One of the most memorable matches I ever saw live at US Open, of the couple of hundred I’ve seen over the decades, was the 2002 second round old Grandstand early afternoon clash between world no. 4 Yevgeny Kafelnikov and no. 52 Dominik Hrbaty.

The reason this duel is still etched in my mind is not so much because of what happened on the court but more so for an off court factor which I believe influenced the match outcome.

I sat in the press section in the second row on the side and of course there was not a big crowd attracted by two Eastern Europeans so there were plenty of seats open. Quickly I noticed who was seated near me because it was four college or high school kids who were madly cheering for Hrbaty but the manner and intensity of cheering for Hrbaty arrested my attention.

It was shocking to see some American fans so passionately supporting Hrbaty who was not known for having many fans anywere outside his country Slovakia though he was a fine player with a hard hitting baseline game. Hrbaty won six ATP titles and 359 matches and over $7m in his career. But the best thing about this Hrbaty vs Kafelnikov match was the high quality verbal emtional support that was infusing into Hrbaty. I never, before or after, saw tennis fans do a better job helping a player reach his high note than those four guys did that day.

Hrbaty was responding to the awesome support from these four guys by playing lights out tennis and he was getting the best of and flat out dominating Kafelnikov. I still can see that anguished, agonized expression on Kafelnikov’s face as he shockingly lost another baseline exchange and game to Hrbaty. He was not tanking this match, he was simply getting outplayed and obliterated by a guy in the zone.

Hrbaty would end up winning that day by a stunning blowout 63 61 61.

What struck me the most about this article-worthy cheering performance of these four guys was that they were completely fair and respectful to Kafelnikov, they never offended him or drew any glares of stares from the Russian. They just kept expressing a hundred percent excitment, joy and ethusiasm for Hrbaty’s fine play and successful points and it was contagious on Hrbaty. The better Hrbaty played the more excited and enthusiastic they became. It was the perfect storm of all time fan cheering excellence. I got the sense Kafelnikov was only bothered in the sense that he wished he could have such supporting high energy cheering fueling him, he had to be confused, Why is Hrbaty getting this great cheering and I’m getting nothing??! Kafelnikov helplessly realized it was making the difference in the match and he had not one single fan in Grandstand that afternoon to help him. It’s a lonely sport.

Fascinated by the four kids cheering Hrbaty, I had to introduce myself and ask them the million dollar question? Why on earth were they cheering for Hrbaty so effectively and passionately? What chain of events lead to this unique alliance? The leader of the group told me they had met Hrbaty the week before at the Hamlet Cup tournament on Long Island and Hrbaty liked how they were cheering him there vs Richard Krajicek and so Hrbaty told them he would barter them free tickets if they would cheer him like that at US Open.

So the friendly deal was made and though I didn’t see Hrbaty’s first round US Open match in 2002, research shows he won in five sets vs Mario Ancic 46 63 76 57 32 Ret.

It can never be known if Hrbaty would have annihilated Kafelnikov like he did 63 61 61 without his boisterous fan club fueling his performance and the head to head rivalry suggests maybe they didn’t really help as much as it looked (Hrbaty won the head to head series vs the Russian 9-4) but I know what I saw that day and it seemed like a magical chemistry of perfect tennis cheering inspiring a low key, under the radar type player to play one of the best wins of his career vs a world no. 4. (By the way, in the previous match between Hrbaty vs Kafelnikov at 2002 Wimbledon, the Russian won 76 62 62.)

Hrbaty retired in 2013 and I was lucky to see him at Miami Open a few years later, as he was with his wife and pushing a baby stroller. I had known the always approachable Hrbaty from doing a Biofile and some other interviews over the years and so I had to ask him if it was really true that he gave tickets to those four Long Island kids who cheered him on to that amazing win vs Kafelnikov on US Open grandstand?

Hrbaty smiled in pleasant surprise about being reminded of this obscure but happy career memory. And he confirmed the story is all true and he even added a surprising footnote. He is still friends with those four kids, now adults, and they all still keep in touch regularly.

Hrbaty is still involved in pro tennis as he most recently was the coach for 20 year old Chun-Hsin Tseng who is currently ranked 108 in the world. Hrbaty, who was once ranked 12 in the world, previously coached Martin Klizan. Now his daughter is a serious amateur golfer in Europe.

And in case you are wondering how Hrbaty did at the 2002 US Open after upsetting Kafelnikov, he lost in the third round to Max Mirnyi 67 62 46 46. Also in October of 2002 Hrbaty played Kafelnikov again for the third time in 2002 in St. Petersburg, Russia round of 16 and beat the Russian again 76 75.

You have to wonder if Hrbaty would have hired these four remarkable American kids as his traveling cheerleaders for more of his career, how many more 63 61 61 blowout wins he would have been able to produce vs ATP top ten players?

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