Original Article Published on The JP

Serbian icon joins Thiem and other top-ranked tennis stars to travel to Israel in September for tournament.

Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic made it official this week that he will travel to Israel to compete in the ATP 250 series Tel Aviv Watergen Open in September.

Djokovic, the former world No. 1 and 21-time Grand Slam winner, will take part in the tournament that will be held at the Tel Aviv Expo complex from September 25 to October 2.

The 35-year-old is widely considered among the best players of all time and holds multiple records, including holding the No. 1 ranking for the longest period (373 weeks) and the most number of seasons in which he finished the year as the world’s top player (seven times).

“We are happy and excited to host one of the greatest tennis players in history, Novak Djokovic, at the Tel Aviv Watergen Open 2022 tournament and look forward to enjoying his impressive playing skills here in Israel,” said Watergen President Michael Mirilashvili.

Former US Open champion Dominic Thiem, from Austria, previously confirmed his intention to participate in Tel Aviv. Jewish-Argentine Diego Schwartzman and Croatian Marin Cilic are also planning on taking part.

The arrival of these stars comes during an already exciting September for tennis in Israel and the Watergen Open will take place two weeks after Israel hosts the Davis Cup tied versus the Czech Republic on September 16-17.

The Tel Aviv tournament returns to Israel after a 26-year hiatus.  That original tournament was inaugurated in 1978 and was held yearly until 1981, took a break in 1982 and was again played yearly from 1983 to 1996.  The tournament stopped happening due to loss of funding and explosion of tennis tournaments, but was set to resume in 2014 before being canceled due to security concerns surrounding the Gaza-Israel conflict.  American player Jimmy Connors won the event in 1989 when he beat Gilad Bloom in the final.  The tournament holds the record for having the youngest winner of an ATP event when Aaron Krickstein won the tournament at age 16 in 1983 at the age of 16.

The new tournament is back in Tel Aviv 26 years later thanks to an opening in the calendar caused by the cancellation through COVID-19 of the Zhuhai Championships ATP 250 event in China. Major funding by Watergen and its owner, entrepreneur Mirilashvili, brought the event to Tel Aviv.

Novak Djokovic: No stranger to Israel

Djokovic is no stranger to Israel, having visited in 2006 to receive treatment from physiotherapist Rafi Virshuvski.

He has visited on other occasions and was quoted as saying: “I played here with Serbia in the Davis cup, but we didn’t have time to travel. This time I did some traveling in my three days here, you have an incredible country.

“I got to know it a little bit now and discovered there is plenty more to see. I was in Jerusalem in all the holy places. It was an amazing experience. As a religious man, a Christian, I feel obligated to come here at least one more time to see and experience the fantastic holy land, to pray and see where Jesus was crucified, where he was, where he was buried.”

Thiem is also no stranger to Israel.  He played here at age 16 as a junior as well as in more recent years.  

“I’ve been to Eilat and Tel Aviv for Futures quite a lot of times,” the Austrian told The Jerusalem Post. “I really enjoy the country, especially Tel Aviv. It’s a very lively and nice city with great, great restaurants, great food, good lifestyle.  I’m really happy to be back there soon. Hopefully, it’s going to be a great tournament there.”

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The Original Article Published In The Jerusalem Post

Sela entered the qualifiers at the US Open thanks to his protective ranking. He came to New York hoping to advance past the first round of the qualifiers

When Israeli tennis icon Dudi Sela walked onto Court 4 for his first-round qualifying match at the US Open, he had the cool demeanor of someone meeting friends for dinner on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street.

Sela, 37, arrived five minutes before his opponent, 28-year-old Kaicha Uchida (ranked No. 169) of Japan. Jewish and Israeli fans sent regards from various common friends and wished him luck. Sela sat with a white towel over his head to block the sun on this bright New York day.

It was likely his last day ever playing on these hallowed courts.

Who is Dudi Sela?

Sela entered the qualifiers at the US Open thanks to his protective ranking. He came to New York hoping to advance past the first round of the qualifiers, a feat he failed to accomplish at this year’s other three Grand Slam events – the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon.

Sela suggested that retirement from playing was imminent when he announced to a group of Australian Jewish tennis fans: “I think it is going to be my last year. But for sure, I’m going to come back – as a coach or something else. And I just want to say a big thank you.”

Here’s what happened at the match:

Sela’s match opened with chants of “Dudi, Dudi” and “Yallah” (onwards). Uchida broke Sela in the first game. Still, 20 years of experience on the tour helped the Sela keep his younger opponent guessing and the Israeli went up 3-2.

Then, Uchida caught on. He began hitting Sela’s short balls down the line or cross court, often out of reach. Uchida closed out the first set 6-3 in 37 minutes.

Uchida continued to dominate the second set. He served to go up 3-0. At 5-2, when Uchida appeared ready to close out the match Sela broke Uchida without a point. Uchida easily closed out the second set 6-3 in 32 minutes.

The hour-and-nine-minute match may have taken less time than a Tel Aviv dinner with friends. But those in attendance stayed for some additional time with their beloved Sela. Many knew this was likely his last time playing at the US Open. Sela patiently signed autographs and took selfie photos with each fan who asked.

On the way to the locker room, he stopped for additional autographs, photos and conversation.

“Thank you for cheering for me” Sela told two girls posing for a photo.

Sela acknowledged, “It is my last time playing here.”

Brother Nir Sela added: “It is sad for me. I want him to keep playing!”

Sela conceded that physically it is difficult for him to compete at this stage and at this level.

 “After a few games I got very tired and had some problems with my hip. I enjoyed it.”

 Then, Sela shockingly offered, “But in Australia I can win the last one!”

Sela’s many fans around the world may just get that one last chance to see their hero play in a Grand Slam match after all.

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

While US Open is missing Israeli players, local tennis up-and-comers grow their game, find their rhythm in lower-rung tournaments.

The dozen or so hard-core tennis fans who stopped by the Toto Tennis Center in Kfar Saba between August 1 and 7, or the Bnei Herzliya Tennis Club in nearby Herzliya the following week, were treated to a chance to see some of Israel’s best young tennis players in action – all free of charge. They may have even gotten a glimpse of Israeli tennis legend, Dudi Sela, quietly watching 21-year-old Sahar Simon in action at the M15 Kfar Saba Open.

Simon fought hard all week in the blazing August heat. He defeated Nitzan Riklis 6-2, 2-6, 7-6 in a second-round match that lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes. Simon eventually advanced to the finals, where he defeated fellow Israeli Ben Patael 6-3, 4-6, 6-2.

The following week at the M15 Herzliya Open, Simon advanced to the quarterfinals before retiring with minor back issues while trailing Israeli Orel Kimhi 6-0, 2-0. Simon made a quick recovery and was in the main draw of the Aldershot, Great Britain, ITF World Team Tennis Tour. He lost in the first round to Filip Peliwo of Poland 6-3, 6-2.

Despite Simon’s successful past few months, he will not be playing in this year’s US Open in New York.

Simon, who trains with Sela at the Dudi Sela Tennis Academy in Tel Aviv, represents a crop of young talented Israelis who inhabit the lower rungs of the professional tennis world.

These young Israeli players range from No. 307 Yshai Oliel to No. 1,550 Yair Sarouk. They include such players as No. 425 Nicole Khirin, No. 435 Shavit Kimchi, No. 444 Daniel Cukierman, No.449 Ben Patael, and No.546 Edan Leshem.

Cukerman and Leshem have played on Israel’s Davis Cup team in past years.

While these players are better than millions of tennis players in the world, their current rankings – and the several hundred players ahead of them with even higher rankings – prevent them from competing in higher level tournaments with bigger payouts.

Fortunately, players have a mechanism to potentially advance and perhaps one day play in the US Open and other Grand Slams tennis events. Getting to that level requires perseverance, skill, luck and often the financial backing of parents and other angel investors.

Simon is currently ranked No. 651, an impressive jump from No. 803 one month ago. At the Kfar Saba Open, Simon and Sela spoke with The Jerusalem Post about such obstacles as lack of funding which makes it difficult for players to advance to the next level of professional tennis.

“This guy [Simon] pays for me, shoes and more,” noted Sela, indicating that his family supports his tennis career and that it is impossible for players who don’t have private funding.

Both laughed as they described how much it costs to enter the tournament (approximately 70 shekels) and how little the winner would take home.

“If you win Round 1, you have enough for hummus on pita,” Sela says, pointing to the nearby Hummus Eliyahu restaurant.

“If you win Round 2, you can have shwarma,” quipped Simon.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) Men’s World Tennis Tour is working to do its part to help players advance to higher level tournaments with greater prize money. But the process is a long one.

The ITF provides entry-level professional tennis tournaments and a pathway between the ITF Junior World Tennis Tour and the elite levels of men’s professional tennis. The results of ITF tournaments are incorporated into the ATP Ranking, which enables professionals to progress to the ATP Challenger Tour and ATP Tour, and ultimately the Grand Slams. The Tour offers nearly 550 tournaments in 70 countries. They offer prizes at two levels – $15,000 and $25,000.

The August tournaments in Israel were considered “M15 tournaments,” meaning these “Futures” tournaments distribute $15,000 among all singles and doubles players. Futures tournaments are also where players can earn their first ATP points and get their names on the rankings. Each Futures tournament has 20 main draw spots and 48 qualifying spots. The acceptance list is based on ATP ranking points. These tournaments have a chair umpire, one line judge and players retrieving their own balls.

While the two tournaments were taking place in Kfar Saba and Herzliya, 15 similar M15s were taking place simultaneously in such places as Tbilisi, Georgia, Decatur, IL, Nottingham, England and Agadir, Morocco.

For the next three weeks, the tennis world turns its attention to the US Open Grand Slam tennis event in New York.

The qualifying tournament got under way on Tuesday, with 128 players vying for the 16 remaining spots in both the men’s and women’s singles draw. For tennis lovers on a tight budget, attending the US Open main draw (August 29-September 11 may prove to be challenging and costly. But the qualifying event taking place this week is a well-kept secret which allows fans to see top-level tennis for free.

As fans cheer on players with names like Nadal, Kyrgios, Williams and Osaka, and recall that last year’s winners, Daniil Medvedev and Emma Raducanu, each took home $2,500,000, it is useful to remember the thousands of talented lower level players slugging it out at 15 futures and four Challenger tournaments taking place at the same time – in Thailand, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Poland, Korea, Brazil, Egypt, Tunisia, etc.

Perhaps next year, with perseverance, luck and additional funding, more Israel tennis players will find their way to the US Open.

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