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Tennis always came easily to Zsofi Susanyi. But her competitive nature and ability to persevere have led to a dominant freshman season.

Dean Ignacio/Staff
Zsofi Susanyi has accumulated a 26-4 record in her freshman campaign in Berkeley.

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The city of Szeged can only be described as resilient. An ancient city in the southern plains of Hungary, Szeged has been invaded by Mongols, pillaged by Turks, frenzied by witch trials and, in 1879, was flooded over. During World War II, it was the departure point of scores of Jews to concentration camps. To say that the city survived would be an understatement. Time after time, pushed to the brink, Szeged fought back, and today it thrives.

It comes as no surprise that Zsofi Susanyi, a native daughter of Szeged and a freshman tennis star at Cal, is prized for her resilience and competitive nature. Add one of the most well-rounded games in the nation to that fierce fighting spirit, and it seems almost inevitable that Susanyi has risen from relative obscurity to No. 17 in the country.

“I can add a lot of things to someone’s game and help them get to the next level, but if someone doesn’t like or enjoy competing, that’s a pretty hard thing to teach,” says Cal head coach Amanda Augustus. “You have to have that in you.”

Susanyi’s reluctance to give up even one point coincides with her will to improve as a tennis player. Her strong desire to grow was apparent in the first months of her American college career. In November, Susanyi won the ASU Thunderbird Invitational, capped off with a dominating 6-0, 6-2 win over teammate Tayler Davis, whom Susanyi had lost to just one month before.

Last weekend, Susanyi added to her story with the biggest win of her career, a straight-set victory over Washington’s Denise Dy, a wily veteran and a fixture in the top 10 of the national rankings. Dy had defeated Susanyi handily in January, but the freshman cemented her place as one of the country’s top newcomers, grabbing a 6-3, 7-5 win this past Friday.

Susanyi’s 26-4 record is more impressive considering she has posted a 7-2 mark on the top court, playing in the place of the injured Jana Juricova, the defending NCAA singles champion. Facing the best player on the opposing team is a daunting task, but trying to fill in for Juricova, who entered the season ranked No. 1, is a challenge that few would want to take up.

“It’s hard in your first year adjusting to everything, and then she’s asked to play up on the top courts,” Augustus says. “It takes a special person to be able to do that.”

After attending a tennis summer camp, Susanyi began playing tennis with a coach when she was 8 years old. Both her mother and her uncle played tennis, a popular sport in Hungary — the Hungarian Tennis Championship is the fourth-oldest tennis tournament in the world.

In 2009, Susanyi travelled to England to play in the Junior Wimbledon Championships. Advancing to the singles quarterfinals, she lucked into sitting next to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in a players’ lounge. The encounter, quite a prize for the 17-year-old Susanyi, gave her an insight into the world at the pinnacle of professional tennis.

“It’s different than everything else,” Susanyi says of Wimbledon. “We see how the pros do everything.”

Even though she had an encounter that most racket-wielders would salivate over, Susanyi soon realized the life of a professional tennis player was usually a far cry from the luxury enjoyed by these two men. Susanyi was in the top 15 in world junior rankings, but the professional game was not appealing. Between the constant practice and grueling travel schedule, Susanyi came to miss the regular motions of high school life.

“I also wanted to do school again because I like it,” Susanyi says. “When I had to take off time from tennis because I had to study for graduation, that was the best moment of my life.”

Even one of tennis’s most competitive players realized that she should not fight the Sisyphean battle of having a thriving pro career and some sense of a normal life. Luckily for her, Susanyi’s play had elevated her to a place where she had other options for her future.

Susanyi played doubles with the younger sister of former Cal All-American Suzi Babos. Augustus originally tried to recruit the younger Babos, but she chose to ply her trade at the professional ranks and is currently ranked No. 68 worldwide. However, Augustus lured Susanyi to Berkeley, a more-than-adequate consolation prize.

“Seeing her play for the first time, I could see she competes hard, and that’s big for me as a coach,” Augustus says.

Susanyi’s biggest fight at Cal may have been off the court, adjusting to college life in a new country. Upon arrival, Susanyi faced many of her teammates’ same hurdles; six of the 10 players on Cal’s roster were recruited from Europe. However, having that network of support made her off-the-court adjustment that much easier.

One of the key factors in the transition was Juricova, a three-time All-American and one of two seniors on the Bears’ roster. A striking similarity between Juricova and Susanyi is the combination of on-court tenacity and off-court grace.

“Jana’s nickname is the Bear because when she’s on the court she’s attacking, but then when she’s off the court, she’s a very sweet and gentle person,” Augustus says. “I think that’s a similarity that Zsofi has.”

Not only did Juricova help Susanyi offer an exemplar of success on the court and in the classroom, but they have also joined forces in doubles and earned an 10-1 record.

There is no doubt that it is Susanyi’s fierce competitive nature that has been so instrumental in her climb to the top. It is apparent from the stands, as her shrieks of “One!” after winning a point can be heard beyond the walls of the Hellman Tennis Complex. Susanyi stays in points where others quit and even in losing efforts puts together a veritable highlight reel of back-from-the-brink points.

This love of competition may be somehow linked to coming from a city that never gave up. But a 16-hour flight away from Hungary in California, Susanyi’s spirited game may lead the Bears to their first team championship: a goal that would take not only Susanyi’s reservoirs of talent but also her firm resolve to never give up.