‘Love,’ all: Israel is Tennis Heaven

Original Article Published on The JNS

Israeli tennis fans are in for a treat. This month, Tel Aviv hosts elite players in two international competitions.

On Sept. 16 and Sept. 17, the Shlomo Group Arena—home to the Hapoel Tel Aviv basketball team and better known as the Drive-in Arena since it’s built on the grounds of what was once Israel’s only drive-in theater—will see Davis Cup action between the national men’s team and the visiting Czech Republic squad.

Then on Sept. 25 through Oct. 2, also in the city’s north, the Tel Aviv Watergen Open will grace Expo Tel Aviv, better known as the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. The richest tennis tournament ever held in Israel will see Serb Novak Djokovic, winner of 21 Grand Slam singles titles, and Argentine Jewish player Diego Schwartzman take part. The tournament offers $1,117,930 in prize money.

The winner of the Davis Cup World Group I tie’s series of singles and doubles matches will advance to the round of 16. The Czech Republic won the two nations’ last meeting in 2018 by a score of 3-1 and led the overall series 3-1.

Israel faces stiff competition. The players on the Czech team are all in the top 222 in the world. They are Jiri Lehecka (61), Tomas Machac (126), Zdenek Kolar (149) and Dalibor Svrcina (222). Retired doubles star Jaroslav Navratil is their captain.

The Israel roster consists of Yshai Oliel (355), Daniel Cukierman (457), Edan Leshem (470) and Sahar Simon (639). Player/Capt. Jonathan (“Yoni”) Erlich is ranked 164 in the world in doubles. His illustrious career includes playing for Israel’s Davis Cup team starting in 2000, representing Israel at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and winning the Australian Open in 2008 with partner and friend Andy Ram. The 45-year-old has competed in dozens of Grand Slam tournaments and other major tournaments around the world, and is rumored to be nearing retirement.

Israel advanced to this Davis Cup round after beating South Africa 3-1 in Ashdod in March.

Serbian ace Novak Djokovic (center) will soon take to the courts in Israel. Credit: Courtesy of Tel Aviv Watergen Open.

Expect some high-quality playing

Avi Peretz, chairman of the Israel Tennis Association (ITA), knows his team faces a tough road, but he remains enthusiastic and optimistic.

“Although we have a match against an excellent team, we are not giving up. After the experience we had in Ashdod—with the wonderful support and encouragement from the crowd and with the help of the wonderful team and players we have—we will fight as always until the end!”

Erlich explains his rationale in selecting his team.

“I’m going with the squad that played against South Africa. We achieved a very beautiful victory, and the players advanced at the right moment and were committed to the team. We have a new player joining the roster for the first time, Sahar Simon, and I’m excited for him to be part of this special week, and I’m sure it will give him a lot as well. The players did all of their preparations in tournaments abroad to get in the best shape they can.

“We are going to have a very challenging week,” he continues, “and I hope the hall will be full and give us the boost we need. Tennis fans in Israel are guaranteed to experience high-quality tennis for a few weeks with both the Davis and the ATP tournament coming here.”

Just one week after the Czech team leaves Ben-Gurion International Airport, 28 singles players and 16 doubles teams will arrive for the ATP 250 Tel Aviv Watergen Open, from such countries as Serbia, Argentina, Croatia, the Netherlands, Spain, France, Finland, Brazil, Portugal and the United States.

The top player in the draw is the always colorful and somewhat controversial Djokovic, who hasn’t been permitted to play in the US Open and other top tournaments due to his refusal to comply with vaccination policies.

Other top players include Schwartzman, Croatian Marin Cilic and Austrian Dominic Thiem. Aslan Karatsev was born in Russia, made aliyah with his parents at age 3 and lived in Israel until age 12. Due to issues reportedly around funding Karatsev’s development as a tennis player in Israel, he and his father returned to Russia. The dual Israeli-Russian citizen is ranked 38 and currently plays for Russia. Playing the Tel Aviv Watergen may provide opportunities to see family in Israel.

The Tel Aviv tournament represents a homecoming of sorts. It was played from 1978 through 1981, and again from 1983 through 1996.

Amos Mansdorf, the Israeli tennis legend, made it to the final five times, winning in 1987. He is the only Israel to win the tournament.

American Jewish player Aaron Krickstein won the tournament in 1983 and 1984. To this day, he holds the record for the youngest player to ever win an ATP tournament; he was 16 years and 2 months old when he captured the title in 1983. And tennis great Jimmy Connors won his final career title at the event in 1989.

Israel Davis Cup team. Credit: Israel Tennis Association.

‘An exciting second half of the season’

Due to factors including lack of funding, an increase in the number of tournaments worldwide and ongoing conflict in the region, the tournament has been on hiatus since 1996.

Peretz, the ITA chair, notes that “we are very excited about the existence of a tournament of this magnitude in Israel. It is another step in bringing tennis back to the forefront as part of the vision of the ITA. This is a wonderful opportunity for all tennis lovers in Israel to watch first-class tennis players up close and enjoy a great tennis experience. We thank the Watergen company and especially (its president), Dr. Michael Mirilashvili, who for years has been contributing and helping to promote tennis in Israel.”

Alison Lee, executive vice president of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP)’s International Group is similarly pleased. “We’re excited to see the ATP Tour return to Tel Aviv this year. Introducing single-year tournaments to the calendar has been an opportunity for ATP to take tennis to new markets, and it’s incredibly encouraging to have great cities like Tel Aviv step up to host an event.”

She says “this shows strong interest in tennis internationally and validates the agile approach we’ve taken. We would like to thank the organizers for making this return possible and building on the city’s rich tennis history. The event will play an important role in delivering an exciting second half of the season for our fans.”

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