Challenger Chronicles: Norbert Gombos
In the first installment of the Challenger Chronicles, we feature Norbert Gombos.
In 2019, no player has won more matches on the ATP Challenger Tour than Slovakia’s Norbert Gombos. At the age of 28, Gombos is enjoying a breakout campaign behind a staggering 36-16 record and consecutive titles in Winnipeg, Canada and his hometown of Bratislava. His victory in his home capital was a special one, with friends and family in attendance.
Gombos’ career has had its fair share of successes and struggles, including surgery in 2016, a Top 100 breakthrough in 2017, a dip in form in 2018 and resurgence in recent months. After seven years fighting on the Challenger circuit, Gombos is finally reaping the rewards as he sets his sights on a transition to the ATP Tour.
It is all coming together for the Slovakian. He is fresh off a first tour-level quarter-final at the Citi Open in Washington, rising to No. 118 in the ATP Rankings on Monday.
So, how did Gombos get here? Where did he get his start? What is important to him in life? We spoke to the Slovakian…
Norbert, it’s been an incredible summer for you. How do you think you performed over the past month and how happy are you with your game right now?
I am very happy with my game. Last year I was struggling the whole year. Winning those titles [in Bratislava and Winnipeg] for me is so important and finally I feel that I can play better and better and can start thinking about the Top 100 so I am really happy about it.
It’s been a busy stretch for you on all surfaces. How have you managed your summer schedule?
It all started on clay in Bratislava, but it was actually not in my plans at first. I wanted to prepare for Wimbledon by competing in Ilkley. The cut-off was so strong, so I had to play in Bratislava. It did not matter too much as I could play at the club where I practise throughout the year and that made me happy. I was so happy to win in my hometown in front of my family, friends and coaches.
I went to Wimbledon straight after, with no preparation on grass before the first match. I arrived at three in the morning, practised for 30 minutes and went straight on court to play the match. It was actually pretty impressive that I played well. Right after Wimbledon I went home to prepare for the hard-court season and travelled alone to Winnipeg. I won the tournament by myself with no help which was very good for me.
What was the experience like to win a title at home? You rarely get to play in front of friends and family.
I was pretty happy about it. I practise there and it is a great club and they did a good job with the courts and overall organisation of the tournament. It was great for me to win the title there because a lot of people in Bratislava thought that my tennis was over after the last couple of years when I was not playing well. That made me more motivated as I really wanted to show them that I can play really good tennis.
The tournament was very strong with players like Klizan as well as other Slovakian Davis Cup players, so it was really special for me to win. My whole team, family and friends that have not seen me play before were extremely happy for me and I was so happy to win a tournament after a year and a half.
There are a lot of great champions from Slovakia. When you were growing up, did you feel the strong tennis tradition there and did that inspire you?
When I was younger, I did not follow tennis too much. My father put me on the court and said ‘you will play tennis’. He was really sporty so that is how I ended up in tennis. Years later, I was following a lot more tennis, especially Davis Cup. Our best Slovakian players like Karol Kucera, Karol Beck and Dominik Hrbaty made the final so it was a huge achievement for our country. I was more motivated after that to be like them and to compete against those players.
I was not very good in juniors. I was losing a lot of first rounds but my father was always seeing potential in me and supporting me all the time. I was so motivated to show everyone that I can play on the international stage. I was getting a bit older and started to play more Challengers and it went from there. I am so happy that I can play so well and I hope that the results will come.
You had surgery in 2016 and then broke inside the Top 100 the year after. But last year was very difficult for you. What has the past four years been like with all the ups and downs?
It was difficult for me when I had my surgery. I lost a lot of time and I was losing all the time in the first round and dropped out of the Top 300. But I started to play well at the end of the year and won some Challengers. In two and a half months I moved from outside the Top 300 to inside the Top 130 and a few months later I broke into the Top 100. It was one of the best moments of my career. I could play the biggest tournaments and for me it was an amazing experience.
But the problem was, I did not defend my points after that and I dropped a bit. My game was not going well and I was expecting too much from myself all the time. I was very frustrated and low. As you can see, there were many highs and lows. And then this year I changed my coach and became more motivated again. We made a big improvement in my game and I am playing great again. It is great to be thinking about the Top 100 again.
What has been the biggest difference from last year to this year?
I am looking at things from another angle. Last year I was always thinking about how I was playing when I was Top 100. I was thinking about the past a lot. Now I am focused on the present and always thinking to improve my game. That is the main thing that I changed in my game and my thinking. I am focusing on myself and to be better and better every day.
You are working with Ilya Marchenko’s old coach, right? Does he get a lot of credit for this improvement? He helped Ilya have a great run in his career too.
Yes, Tibor Toth is the Davis Cup coach as well. We started to work together in November last year. He has so much experience. He used to coach Dominik Hrbaty and Sergiy Stakhovsky too. I trust him completely and doing everything that he says. It is a very good way for me and hopefully I will do better and better results.
You were talking about being injured and dropping out of the Top 100 before finding your form again. What do you feel are the biggest challenges of being a professional tennis player?
I am so motivated to play ATP Tour events and it is not easy to get there. The biggest challenge is to get there and compete at these big tournaments against the best players. I would like to keep improving and get to play those tournaments regularly. I have to fight for every point, every result and hopefully play there in the future.
It is a new level from Challengers to the tour-level. The players get better and better and you have to keep working and improve your game.
What would you say to young Slovakian kids who want to become professional players like yourself?
To work a lot. Have a lot of motivation and just do your best. Try and win as many much as they can and do not be too hard on yourself. The results will come if you keep working hard. Put everything into your game and the results will come.
Are you married?
No, I am not. I have had a girlfriend for over five years.
Does she travel with you?
Sometimes. She works so she cannot travel all the time. It is not very often but it is really good for me when she is at the tournaments. Players love to have family with them. It is a lonely sport and it is important to have people with you. It is great to have your family supporting you and that is why a lot of players perform really well at their home tournaments.
Your countryman Andrei Martin mentioned that there is a floorball league among Slovakian players. Is that something you play? What other sports do you enjoy outside of tennis?
They do, but I do not play because I am not very good at floorball. I love ice hockey and I follow NHL matches as well, but I support my country more than anything else. In the NHL my favourite team is the Chicago Blackhawks. I have not been to a game yet. I have only watched Florida Panthers play live. I hope one day I can go to Chicago and see a game.