Hungary???s Marton Szivos reacts to a goal against Serbia during a preliminary men's water polo match at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
Sergei Grits
August 07, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Hungary is the home of 15 Olympic men's water polo medals, more than any other country. It owned the pool in Sydney, Athens and Beijing, winning three consecutive gold medals.

And it was practically an afterthought when it arrived in Rio de Janeiro.

While Serbia's recent success dominated the pre-Olympic talk heading into group play, it didn't take very long for Hungary and Croatia to break out of the shadow created by the world champions. Hungary led most of the way before settling for a 13-13 tie with Serbia in the first game in Brazil on Saturday, and Croatia followed with a 7-5 victory over the United States.

It was only opening day - each team plays five matches before the field is cut down for the quarterfinals - but it was clear there is depth in the men's field beyond the powerful Serbians.

''I think they are one of the favorites, but we are also there,'' Hungary driver Marton Vamos said. ''We can beat everybody.''

Serbia is seeking its first gold medal after winning bronze at each of the last two Olympics. It arrived in Rio coming off a dazzling stretch that included the world championship last year and the European title in January.

Hungary finished fifth at the London Olympics, missing the podium for the first time since 1996 in Atlanta. It dropped to sixth at last year's world championships in Russia, but the country remains a threat in the eyes of its competitors.

''Hungary is the land of water polo,'' Serbia driver Stefan Mitrovic said.

It sure looked that way in the opener at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre. Gabor Kis scored in the final seconds of the first half and Norbert Hosnyanszky added another goal early in the third, helping Hungary open a 10-6 lead.

Hungary looked as if it was going to hang on for 13-12 win before Filip Filipovic scored his third goal in the final seconds for Serbia. Hungary coach Tibor Benedek said he was satisfied with the result for the group play opener, and then happily reaffirmed Serbia's status as the favorite.

''It should be the problem of Serbia,'' a smiling Benedek said. ''They are the favorite of the tournament. We are easy for this.''

Croatia rallied for an 8-6 victory over Italy in the 2012 Olympic final, and lost 11-4 to Serbia in the final of the world championships last year. Facing a U.S. squad overhauled by former Serbia coach Dejan Udovicic, Croatia showed off the same championship mettle it employed to such great success in London.

Andelo Setka gave Croatia a 5-4 lead with a long shot from up top with 2:16 left in the third. He added another goal from outside in the fourth, and Croatia shut out the U.S. for much of the second half.

''For us, Croatia and Serbia are the two most strong right now,'' U.S. captain Tony Azevedo said. ''Hungary had a great game. They were up by four, but they also ended up tying when they were up by four. So Serbia clearly is still more dominant, but you know what's great about the Olympic Games, you never know.''

Azevedo, making his fifth appearance in the Olympics - a record for the U.S. program - scored two goals in his return to his native Rio de Janeiro. He also plays professionally for Sesi in Sao Paulo.

''It's really nice, and to get that first goal out of the way is great,'' he said. ''But honestly, I don't care if I score another goal again. I just need to win this damn game.''

Also Saturday, Italy edged Spain 9-8 and Greece rallied for a dramatic 8-7 victory over Japan. Greece trailed 7-4 after three quarters.

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Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

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