Editor’s Notes: The tennis lesson

By David Horovitz July 17, 2009

As a team, exalted Andy Ram, we are No.1 in the world

One of the perks of working as The Jerusalem Post’s correspondent in London in the late 1980s was that for three successive years I got to go to Wimbledon – free of charge, and without having to line up outside overnight.

Shlomo Glickstein, who had made the occasional ripple at the All England Club – notably losing to champion Bjorn Borg on the hallowed Center Court in the second round in 1980 – was fading. But this was the (relative) heyday of Amos Mansdorf, a top 20 player whose game worked well on grass. Since it could be reasonably argued, therefore, that an Israeli stood a chance – albeit an outside chance – of progressing some distance in the tournament, the organizers bestowed upon the Post a coveted access-all-areas press pass.

This accreditation even afforded me a seat, when space allowed, on Center Court – there to watch the likes of Becker and Edberg, Graf and Sabatini, duelling it out for the singles’ championships.

Mansdorf, a rather sullen court presence, though pleasant enough in the post-match press conferences, never did make it beyond the fourth round at Wimbledon. In my (doubtless distorted) memory, he’s always going down to narrow defeat at the hands of an elegant crowd favorite named Henri Leconte, a wavy-haired Frenchman who, like many superior competitors, seemed somehow to have more time than his opponents to conceive and play his shots.

But each year, hope of improbable Israeli success flourished anew – which is why, in one of my life’s more ignominious episodes, I found myself still at Wimbledon watching the tennis one summer’s afternoon a little more than 20 years ago, when I should have been on the train to the airport and a flight to Israel for my wedding.

Mansdorf (fortunately for me) lost in fairly short order that day, I caught the plane and made it to my wedding. But the memories of those years of Israeli disappointment at Wimbledon had lingered… until the last few days.

For this was the week when, in a fitting prelude to the Maccabiah ‘Jewish Olympics,’ Israel’s tennis players more than compensated for decades of intermittent reasonable prowess and more frequent mediocrity. Indeed, notwithstanding various basketball titles, Olympic medals and 1970′s World (Soccer) Cup qualification, this was the week when our men’s tennis team provided Israel with arguably its greatest ever sporting achievement.

LESS THAN four years ago, Israel shuffled along among the also-rans of world tennis. In the Davis Cup men’s team tennis tournament, we were one defeat away from banishment from Europe-Africa Zone Group One, the level below the elite top-16 World Group. The players were disunited. Some were in dispute with the Israel Tennis Federation. ‘Had we fallen to Zimbabwe [in a crucial relegation playoff in September 2005], we’d have found ourselves playing against real minnows like Egypt and Ireland,’ notes the Post’s sports reporter Allon Sinai.

But new captain Eyal Ran, while never a top player himself, turned the team around, restored unity, resolved the disputes and evidently created a remarkable sense of self-belief. So much so that, last weekend, Israel achieved the hitherto unthinkable, crushing the world’s top-ranked nation, Russia, to reach the Davis Cup’s final four.

The turnaround – from mediocrity to glory – is all the more remarkable for having been achieved with the same core group of players. Three of this week’s victorious quartet – Dudi Sela and the doubles pairing of Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich – were representing Israel at the time of the 2005 low. Only Harel Levy was missing four years ago.

Levy, who had aspirations to true tennis stardom before a serious hip injury all but finished his career eight years ago, was the initial hero this time, sensationally defeating a Russian opponent ranked almost 200 places above him. The diminutive Sela – whose official height of 1.74 looks, shall we say, optimistic – continued the good work with a second singles victory on day one. And the duo affectionately known as ‘AndyYoni’ finished the job – though not without some serious wobbling – on day two.

There’d been misgivings about playing the tie in the 11,000-seat Nokia Arena, as opposed to Ramat Hasharon’s smaller outdoor Canada Stadium. But the move to the indoor venue paid off handsomely – more fans got to see the game, and to make their presence felt. Exhausted but ebullient, Ram and Erlich both hailed the crowd for lifting them to victory against a Russian duo in which former world No. 1 Marat Safin, after a sluggish start, had shown dangerous signs of regaining his deftest touches.

In the closing stages of Levy’s and Sela’s games last Friday, the crowd’s support literally shook the arena. When ‘AndyYoni’ lost the third and fourth sets in their five-set epic the next day, the fans never wavered – urging the pair forward, raising the noise level whenever Ram pumped his fists to demand their greater involvement.

Locally beloved and globally successful though they have been, the Ram-Erlich partnership has not been entirely heavenly of late. Ram, the more charismatic and gifted player, enjoyed a great deal of success in the past year with Max Mirnyi of Belarus as his partner while Erlich was recovering from injury, and did not immediately renew the all-Israeli pairing.

But against Russia, this and all other irritants were put aside. And Israel – the team that was brought back from the brink of tennis purgatory by captain Ran; the team that came through in March against Swedish hosts who capitulated to anti-Israel activists by ordering their game in Malmo played with no fans present – is now just one match away from the Davis Cup final.

WATCHING WITH her family from her home in Shilo, either side of Shabbat, Daphne Bazer, the great-granddaughter of Dwight Filley Davis, the man who gave the world this admirable exercise in team tennis, could not have been prouder. Her distinguished ancestor, who also served as secretary of war under US president Calvin Coolidge, had hoped the competition would ‘bring countries together… to foster cooperation and understanding,’ she told the Post this week.

The pusillanimous Swedes failed that test, Bazer said. And it’s an open question as to whether Dwight Davis would have approved of the Israeli crowd’s raucously partisan clamor against Russia. But what Davis’s competition has emphatically done for Israel is demonstrate, in a whole new field, how much can be achieved when people pull together toward a shared goal. The whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Of course, individually, as the victorious players acknowledged in their ecstatic post-match interviews, Israel can make no claim whatsoever to be one of the world’s four tennis superpowers. Spain, where we will play the semifinal in September, boasts eight men in the world’s top 50; we have two in the top 200 – Sela at No. 30, and Levy at 183 – and only two more in the global top 1,000. But together…. together, almost anything is possible.

‘What a team!’ marveled Ram in the sweaty euphoria of victory, after he’d dashed around the stadium with his head in his shirt in a crazed victory dance. ‘As a team we are No. 1 in the world.’

‘We are united, and everybody pushes everybody,’ his captain elaborated. ‘Slowly we have put together a team that has galvanized into a homogeneous unit – that rises to the big occasions and plays above itself.’
There’s a lesson for Israel here. And it has very little to do with tennis.

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