Hungary opens bid for 4th straight water polo gold

Three-time defending champion Hungary against gold

medal-favorite Serbia. On the first day, too.

This is quite the match for the opening slate of the men’s water

polo tournament at the London Games.

The Hungarians haven’t lost at the Olympics since 2000, running

up a 17-match unbeaten streak along the way, and are seeking an

unprecedented fourth consecutive title. Serbia, meanwhile, has been

the most consistent team in the past few years, winning a slew of

titles, including the 2012 European crown.

With Serbia first up, the Hungarians know they are facing a

difficult challenge from Day 1 while trying to defend their title

against a deep field of medal contenders.

”Serbia’s one of the favorite teams to win this tournament, so

it is a very tough match to start the games,” said Hungary star

Tamas Kasas, who is appearing in his fifth Olympics.

”We know that we are the three-time defending champions, and

this gives us confidence and maybe (puts) more pressure on the

other teams because they maybe won world championships and European

championships, but now they have to win the most important

thing.”

With a record nine water polo golds, Hungary has clearly

demonstrated its ability to win Olympic titles.

Serbia, meanwhile, is still in search of its first as an

independent nation.

Led by two of the sport’s biggest stars in Vanja Udovicic and

Filip Filipovic, the Serbs took home the silver medal at the 2011

worlds, then won the European Championship this year.

”For the past four years we have made some impressive results

that are putting the Serbian team as one of the favorites for the

gold,” Filipovic said. ”In the end, the competition will show

whether we are ready to handle all the pressure.”

While much of the attention in the run-up to the games has

focused on the Serbs, Filipovic was quick to remind people not to

overlook Hungary.

”They are really scary if you are watching videos, and we’ve

been watching videos of them for two months – how they shoot, how

they defend, they are very aggressive,” he said. ”It’s difficult

to stop them.”

Hungary-Serbia is the marquee matchup on the first day, but

there are a handful of other top-class games on the docket.

The 12-team field is broken down into two groups of six for the

preliminary stage, and the top four teams from each group advance

to the knockout round.

Hungary and Serbia are joined in a tough Group B by the United

States, Montenegro – both serious medal contenders – as well as

Romania and Britain.

The U.S., which is looking to improve on its silver medal-finish

four years ago in Beijing, starts its campaign in London against a

talented Montenegro side that finished second at the 2012 European

Championship, losing to Serbia 9-8 in the final.

”I think it’s a great team to open with,” said U.S. captain

Tony Azevedo, who is one of 10 veterans from the Americans’ 2008

squad.

”You want to start off strong, and team Montenegro is one of

the strongest teams out there. We have more guys who have been to

Olympics than they have, so hopefully the jitters will be more on

their side than ours.”

In Group A, perennial power Croatia opens against a resurgent

Greece team that has legitimate medal hopes. Spain faces Kazakhstan

and 2011 world champion Italy meets Australia.

Ryan Lucas can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/relucasz