"I've got the experience to go there and get that medal," said Slovakia's top tennis player, Karol Kučera, when asked of his chances by The Slovak Spectator on August 15. That day, as if backing up his words, he continued his recent hot spell when he roundly defeated Paul Harshanyi in the first round of the ATP Masters Tournament in Washington DC, 6:1, 6:0.
Kučera also participated in the 1996 Atlanta Games, and has since maintained his spot as the country's top player, once holding the sixth spot in the ATP rankings. He has struggled this year, however, and has seen his ranking fall out of the top 25.
"My results this year were weak," he admitted. "I beat Agassi in the French Open, but then I got tough opponents in every tournament thereafter, and I failed at the very beginning of each. But I have been focusing on the Olympics and my play has really picked up lately. As the Olympics draws closer, each match has a higher level of intensity."
The Slovak national tennis team consists of five players. Coached by Miloš Mečíř (who won gold in Seoul in 1988) and Peter Vajda, the team includes Dominík Hrbatý, Karina Habšudová, Janette Husárová and Henrieta Nagyová.
Kučera and Hrbaty will vie for medals in both the singles and doubles competitions. For the ladies, Habšudová will also compete in singles and doubles, while Nagyová will be limited to singles and Husárová to doubles (teamed up with Habšudová).
"It was the relaxed atmosphere, and just the fun of playing together that helped us win," Kučera said, adding that Habšudová's excellent play had also contributed to the victory.
But the atmosphere at the Olympics promises to be more intense. And according to the players and coaches, the Slovaks will have to overcome two obstacles on the way to the victory podium: parity among the players, and the playing surface.
The field is strong top to bottom, they agreed, but the eventual victor could be aided by the lottery which determines seedings and, therefore, competitors. Vladimír Habas, coach at the Slovenský Zväz Tenisu (Slovak Tennis Union), said that the winner would likely be a player who was given an easier schedule. "The chances for winning are very difficult to predict because there is so much parity among the players," he said. "Everybody has a realistic shot at winning a medal."
The other concern is that Slovaks traditionally do not excel on the hard courts which will host the matches Down Under. Slovaks, who typically prefer clay, have therefore been touring the US and its hard courts in hopes of better preparing for the Games. "They have had to focus more on hard courts, because this is not their best surface," said Peter Vajda, one of the women's coaches.
But obstacles aside, Kučera said he greatly appreciated the opportunity to represent his country. "If I win a medal, many people will be happy," he said. "In Slovakia, tennis is a popular sport and its fans expect good results, especially during the Olympics. But I am proud to represent Slovakia - I will try hard not to disappoint my country."
21. Aug 2000 at 0:00 | Zuzana Habšudová