Laslo Djere may not necessarily have been a name on a casual tennis watcher’s radar. That changed, however, when he won the Rio Open on Sunday with victory over Canadian sensation Felix Auger-Aliassime — the 23-year-old’s first-ever ATP Tour level title.
En route that final, Djere ousted top seed Dominic Thiem, who made it to the 2018 French Open final and is a dab hand on clay. His opponent in the final, Canada’s Auger-Aliassime, is all of 18 and has been hailed as tennis’ next big thing. Part of the ATP’s Next Gen, the Canadian is considered a tennis prodigy and was the firm favourite to take the title, but was trumped in straight sets by his opponent.
Winning the Rio title with such upset victories over favoured opponents has propelled him 53 positions to settle into the World No 37 spot.
However, the victory is not a sudden success. Djere has made three clay court semi-finals this year, and at the ATP 250 Tata Open in Pune last December, went down fighting to Top 10 player, Wimbledon finalist Kevin Anderson.
At 17, Djere won the Orange Bowl, one of the most prestigious junior tennis titles on the ITF circuit. Former winners at the event include Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe, and more recently, Andy Roddick and Roger Federer. He also has quite the penchant for beating higher-ranked players en route to finals. Early on, on his professional debut, en route to the final of the ATP Czech Open Challenger in 2015, Djere toppled three seeded players — including top seed Martin Klizan.
Djere, between 2018 and his professional debut in 2013, has not necessarily been a big name, but an incredibly consistent performer with a total of 11 finals on the Challenger circuit, and 13 on the ITF. Although he has fewer titles at Challengers — two, with nine runner-up finishes, he has been more successful on the ITF circuit, with nine titles of 13 finals. Interestingly, of his 24 singles finals on the ATP Challenger and ITF tour, 22 have been on clay, so perhaps his results at the Rio Open should not be much of a surprise. Both of Djere’s biggest top 10 wins have been against experienced clay campaigners — Thiem this year and before him, Spain’s Fernando Verdasco.
Rocky road to success
But his road to success has been far from easy. Career ups and downs, injuries, and natural crests and troughs in performance plague every player, even the best. But few, have seen the tumult Djere has faced at a very young age. That story of heartbreak and loss remained unknown to the general public until Djere’s emotional, extremely poignant speech after defeating Auger-Aliassime.
Aged 16, Djere was a year away from making his debut on the ATP circuit — truly, moving up to the big leagues — when, in 2012, he lost his mother to cancer. The tight-knit family was understandably shaken, and the loss doubtless took a toll on the young player. The best of us need parental guidance even on a good day, and making the transition to the ATP circuit is a momentous part of any tennis player’s career. Coaches and teams can provide advice, but guidance from one’s parents, especially at such a pivotal time, is crucial.
A loss so profound may well have derailed a career, and indeed, it would be difficult to blame a person for it. But Djere soldiered on in a way that few would have. Only a year later, he went on to debut as a wildcard at the PTT Thailand Open of 2013, and gradually built his way up the rankings over the following two years.
Much of a sporting career is built on resilience and the ability to bounce back from difficulties, but the loss of one’s family is one not specific to sport, nor one that gets easier with time.
If 2015 had marked Djere’s ascent up the rankings, 2017 would truly be the making of the young player, who that year hit his career highest ranking. Unfortunately for Djere, however, with each year that brought him more and more career successes, his personal losses were compounded even further.
Grief is an alien, funny beast, and it does not always dim with time, especially when the loss is so significant. There are days that are harder than others, days when the loss seems insurmountable and grief that can feel all-consuming, even years afterwards. To be able to somehow weather through those losses whilst managing to build one’s way up the rankings, maintain physical fitness and mental health, is almost unimaginable. It often hits when one is least expecting it, and to be able to go out and perform to the level that Djere has, and as consistently, requires an unspeakable amount of strength.
Unfortunately, fate dealt him another cruel hand.
The 23-year-old lost his father, who was parenting him and his younger sister, to cancer in December 2018.
Djere’s father, who was the most significant part of his support system, tragically did not live to see, to share in and celebrate his son’s biggest successes. Djere’s grief after winning the Rio Open title was palpable. As he stood on the podium, his voice shaking and his eyes full of tears, Djere said: “I dedicate this trophy to my parents. I lost my mom seven years ago. I want to dedicate this one to her. Also to my dad. I lost him two months ago. My parents have been the biggest impact on me, and because of them I am who I am today. So just want to thank then. And I hope they are watching me now.
“It’s been the week of my dreams. So many things have been achieved here. I’m really happy, excited and emotional now. I’m happy I could push through this match because it was very tough mentally and physically.”
As Djere said those words, the entire stadium erupted in cheers for the young player, with several in the stands, most notably his coach Boris Conkic, struggling to hold back tears.
Many have expounded on just how important mental endurance is in winning a game. But not many would have been able to bear the strain of what Djere has borne on his young shoulders whilst still juggling a full-time career of any kind. Djere, who began the Rio Open as the 90th ranked men’s singles player on the tour, is a different beast.
Prior to his opener last Monday, neither player nor coach had expected him to win the tournament. In fact, both Djere and his coach were dejected to find that he would be up against Dominic Thiem in the first round. That proved to be a non-issue for the confident young player in the end as he took Thiem to the cleaners.
Later in the final, Djere held his own to stave off any fight back from a seemingly uncertain Auger-Aliassime, hitting some perfectly timed service winners down the line and wielding a powerful double-handed backhand.
Indeed, for all he has been through, Djere has now received support from perhaps his most famous sporting compatriot of all time — incidentally, one famous for his own two-handed backhand and, of course, considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time — Novak Djokovic. The World No 1 reached out to Djere following his emotional win in Rio, tweeting that he appreciated the young player’s “resilience & fighting spirit in difficult times”. The 15-time Grand Slam winner also called upon Djere to hit doubles with him, and according to the young player, routinely offers him advice on his career as well.
Not always do we see good first-round upsets turn into strong finishes, and it is even rarer that they become titles — especially those built on blood, sweat, tears and the sort of emotional hardship that Djere has been through. But behind those tears is a clay-court talent truly making his presence felt on court, and an irrepressible spirit.
His World No 37 ranking may show the hard work that has gone into his title, but for Djere, it is just a number that merely scratches the surface of the champion that lies beneath.
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Updated Date: Feb 28, 2019 10:11:07 IST