Catching Up with Denes Kemeny of the Hungarian Water Polo Federation

Denes Kemeny celebrating a victory with his team. Photo Courtesy: Gustau Nacarino

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By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

If Ratko Rudic is the world’s most famous water polo coach, by certain measures Denes Kemeny is it’s most successful. Head coach for the dominant Hungarian men’s teams that won gold medals in three successive Olympics—2000, 2004, 2008—Kemeny enjoyed unprecedented success with a team of stars that included past Hungarian coach Tibor Benedek and Tamás Märcz, the currently leading the national team.

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From 1997 until his retirement in 2012, Kemeny teams captured medals in 24 out of 29 major tournaments, including titles at the European (1997, 1999) and World (2003) Championships, FINA World League (2003, 2004) and World Cup (1999) while also padding Hungary’s record total of nine golds in Olympic competition.

Currently the head of the Hungarian Water Polo Federation, Kemeny spoke with Swimming World about the 2017 FINA World Aquatics Championships currently being held in Budapest, the state of international water polo, host Hungary’s chances at FINA Worlds and if anyone can stop the Serbian men’s and American women’s polo teams.

How is it for Hungary to be hosting FINA Worlds in 2017— the world’s biggest non-Olympic aquatics tournament?

FINA Worlds means for Hungary swimming and water polo. Swimming is central [to us]; during the course of the history of the Olympics water polo [Hungary] is successful as well. We won nine Olympic gold medals, so the Hungarian sport fans are really crazy for water polo, right after soccer.

A month ago we organized in the new Duna Arena the Champions’ League finals of the European club competition, and had 25,000 people over three days.

Water polo in Hungary is very important. What happened Sunday [first day of women’s water polo at FINA Worlds] in the night session, Hungarian women against Japan, the arena was full. It was even a surprise for us that the morning session—Canada played Italy—was almost full. There were no Italian fans and no Canadian fans. Just Hungarian water polo people. And the stands hold 6,500.

You can imagine how crazy the entire city is for water polo.

Would you say that now is a great moment for European water polo?

I wouldn’t say only European water polo. It’s a great moment for world-wide water polo because the U.S., China, Canada, Australia are strong. And they are out of Europe. The U.S. men played the final in Beijing against Hungary [in 2008].

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Denes Kemeny. Photo Courtesy: Sarosi Zoltan

Belgrade had the funding to organize a huge, vast arena, with 18,000 seats. Being able to play on Margaret Island, which is the mecca of water polo, but we cannot fit more than 7,000—because of its popularity we could fit 30,000 there every day.

[At the Final Six tournament] you could see that the crowd in Budapest—without even a Budapest team, because the team was from Eger—we had 25,000 people because the capacity of the Duna Arena was enough to let in that many over three days.

Croatia, Serbia, Italy, Hungary—the limit is the capacity of the swimming pool, not the will of the fans, especially for their national teams.

That’s no surprise because Hungary is the best water polo-playing nation in the world…

… one of the best. Hungary is not the best. Hungary has never been the best because we always had challenges. When we won three gold medals in a row, we always had minimum one, sometimes two or three challengers at our level. The Serbian countries or [the] Spanish team or the Italian team—or even Australia in Beijing when we won our group medal, the last group game was against them. We won by a goal in the last minute. It was very exciting.

Last year in Rio, Hungary drew with Australia. Only the critics say that water polo is only a European discipline.

Hungary dominated the sport in the beginning of this century, but there’s a new team that’s overrunning polo right now—the Serbian men’s team which has won 10 straight major tournaments.

Serbia is the best team now. In the really important tournaments, the favorite is always the best, but it is not always that the best team can win. You can have an ugly game and be beaten. Maybe Hungary, maybe somebody else, can make difficulty for Serbians. They are the favorite.

The favorite on the women’s side is the U.S. It’s always difficult to win when you are the favorite.

Hungary is lucky. To be a favorite and playing at home is the most difficult situation when you have to win. So we have a chance with both genders to get on the podium. It’s difficult to get there, but once you are close to the podium, you can win it all.

This team is not the same team that I had, but in the course of history you have ups and downs—that’s quite normal. Generation are different, and when you have a very strong generation it makes it difficult for the next generation.

But no other nation has won nine gold medals at men’s competition. Other nations that are very strong [in water polo] like Italy, Spain, Greece, Australians U.S.—all together have not won eight gold medals.

Your men’s team has a new coach—Tamas Märcz was hired last December—and must quickly implement a new system. How will they fare at this year’s World Championship?

Even in the Olympics, the most important game is the quarterfinals, because if you win the quarterfinals you have a 75% chance to win a medal. Because four winners of quarterfinal, only one of them will not be on the podium. In my opinion that’s the most difficult at the Olympics. You prepare four years and you want to concentrate on your quarterfinal [match] but psychologically you cannot reserve energy and you play 100% because Olympics is another story.

When you finish group games, then you have to restart—maybe 48 hours is not enough to refill your battery. It’s very important—even if you prepare four years for the Olympics you have to save mental energy from the group games to the quarterfinals. Then if you win your quarterfinals you have two more games to play.

There’s eight teams in the quarterfinals and only one team will win three games and become gold medalists.

The results of my teams during the Olympic years were very tough. We had to win nine games in a row—three times quarterfinals, three times semifinals, three times final. You lose one of them—you don’t have three gold medals.

Clearly mental toughness is a characteristic of Hungarian water polo.

I agree that mental toughness is one of the most important [characteristics]. But mental toughness is like the roof of the car; if you do not have the rest under, you do not have a roof.

You need good preparation physically, a good preparation individually, good preparation with team tactics—and then that mental part makes you gold medalists.

But the mental part is not enough. It’s only one part of the mosaic.

Tamas Märcz played for you in the Sydney Olympics. Is he the answer for a successful Olympic run in 2020?

Märcz is preparing all the days the best that he can do. What he believes, what he thinks, he works a lot and prepares everything. The previous head coach [Tibor Benedek] was another player of mine, and he did the same. But in the end you have to be lucky because one shot or one save can decide everything.

What you can do is prepare 100% and then you win or lose based upon your players and your opponent. But you cannot do anything to make your opponent weaker—they are strong and that’s it.

If you lose, if you did everything 100% you can look at yourself in the mirror—that’s no problem.

Does the Hungarian women’s team have what it takes to beat the Americans?

The American team is number one and no team is close to them. That’s no doubt. The head coach of the Hungarian team is Attila Bíró; he organized a tournament a week ago and then they had a scrimmage together with the U.S. team. This means that Hungary has a good chance to improve because when you play against the best it’s much easier to improve.

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Photo Courtesy: D. Kemeny

I think we have to concentrate game-by-game. [Sunday] we won against Japan; now we have France [a 24-5 victory for Hungary] then we have the Dutch team in the group. We have to concentrate on that. And then what we have later, we shall see.

We have a good chance to win the group and if you win the group you are directly in the quarterfinals. And, as we discussed, that is very important.

First the Hungarians must get past a very good Dutch team.

We lost in the [2016] European Championship against the Dutch team in group [play] and then beat them in the finals. The Dutch at that time were probably the best European team, but—even with the qualification tournament in Holland—they didn’t qualify for the Olympics .

Before the game you’re the favorite; at the end of the game you’re the winner.

The Hungarian women’s team played a series of friendlies in the U.S last year before the 2016 Rio Olympics. Who do these matches help?

Adam [Krikorian, U.S. coach] is thinking for the future, for Tokyo—the Hungarian team has to go step-by-step—after two Olympic goal medals Adam can lose some major tournaments along the way because his team is so strong.

Women’s water polo in the U.S. [has grown]. Lots of players and they play close to the men’s level because physically they are much stronger than any other team in the world. The shots [they take], the goalies—everything is different with respect to the other teams.

In this World Championship, it’s a race for the silver but you never know because the ball is ball and anything can happen.

Serbia is the men’s favorite for the gold [but] the US women’s team is more [of a] favorite for the gold medal here in Budapest.

What about the proposed FINA changes to water polo rules, including reduced rosters and a smaller playing field?

I don’t think so. It’s a bad compromise—but it’s a compromise. 11 players, two substitutes in the stands during the Olympics, but that number was very important. The women’s team has to be much closer to men’s [in roster size], so I agree with that.

2 Comments

2 comments

    • avatar
      Michael Randazzo

      I hope you found this a good read! I was very pleased to have the opportunity to speak with Coach Kemeny; besides Rudic who else has had so much success in the sport?

      It’s been a GREAT tournament so far for Hungary; let’s see how the do in the quarterfinals…

      MR

Author: Michael Randazzo

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Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

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