Israel Tennis Educational Centers

Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

As US Open gets under way, lack of blue-and-white competitors is glaring * ITEC and David Squad aim to change that

When fans return to this year’s US Open, they will be painfully aware of an absence of Israeli players.

There will be no Israelis in the men’s or women’s singles draw of this year’s US Open, to be played August 30-September 12 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY.

Jonathan Erlich, 44, will play doubles with Lloyd Harris of South Africa.  Dudi Sela, 36, ranked 319, reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 prior to last week’s scheduled match in the qualifying tournament versus Belgian Ruben Bemelmans.

If Hans Felius has his way, the lack of Israelis in major tennis tournaments will change in the future. Felius, the director of tennis at ITEC (Israel Tennis Educational Centers) – formerly known as Israel Tennis Centers – has a carefully thought-out plan for systematically training Israeli children with great potential so they will one day play in major junior and adult tournaments around the world.

Felius projects that his efforts will bear fruit in 2029. This is no consolation for lovers of Israel tennis with tickets to the 2021 US Open.

Fans of Israel tennis traditionally flock to the US Open each August with hopes of seeing Israeli pros and even juniors in action. Many have stories and memories of late nights spent watching Sela or Shahar Pe’er battle it out on a side court, or Julia Glushko playing in the noon heat, seeking a spot in the main draw. They remember summers watching aspiring juniors Yshai Oliel, Lera Patiuk, Or Ram Harel or Bar Botzer – with great hopes that they’d become the next Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer.

Fans of a certain age remember Gilad Bloom, now 54, reach the rank of No. 61 in singles. Or Shlomo Glickstein, who reached a career-high singles ranking of No. 22 in 1982, and his career-high doubles ranking of 28 in 1986. His impressive career includes reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open once, the third round of both Wimbledon and the French Open once, and the second round of the US Open four times.
Felius is not making excuses for the absence of Israelis at most Grand Slams in recent years. He is simply working to get Israelis back in the draw of major junior and professional tournaments. And he may just have what it takes.

Felius, a native of the Netherlands, was the professional director of the Dutch Tennis Association. He came to Israel in 1988 and was recruited to work with such players as Bloom, Amos Mansdorf and Anna Smashnova. After a stint in Israel from 1989-1997, Felius trained and coached players in Austria and Holland.

“My main expertise is in systematically building players to the professional ranks,” said Felius. He emphasized that “physical education is the basis.”

The father of six is a Jew by choice who made aliyah in 2012. He took a break from tennis to work in hi-tech then was offered his current position, the Director of Tennis and Social Impact Programs at the ITEC.
“I had one more chance to do it right—to get players to the top 100. I knew it would take patience.”

Felius knew it would require a carefully crafted, step-by-step plan.
“It takes 10 years, and we need to stick to each point.”
He firmly believes that getting Israeli players to the top levels is not a matter of “taking the two best players at age 16 and giving them the best coach.”

He makes the case that it is important to identify children with the right motor skills and other skill sets at age seven.
The ITEC is in a unique position to identify and work with young players throughout the country. The ITEC offers what he describes as “three complementary, yet separate spheres that empower one another and create synergy.” They include junior development (5,500 children), social impact programming (for 2,000 children at risk and also includes a coexistence and an obesity prevention program) and talent development.

The talent development program provides 500 gifted players the opportunity to eventually play professional tennis, or to receive scholarships to play at leading universities and colleges abroad. Players train in seven junior academies throughout Israel (Akko, Yokneam, Haifa, Ramat HaSharon, Tel Aviv, Ashkelon). They play two hours a day, five days a week and also participate in fitness classes, mental training and tournaments at the centers. Some go on to play tournaments in Israel and abroad.

Select players from these academies who meet certain ranking and tournament point benchmarks will proceed to the International ITEC Tennis Academy, where the program consists of six days of tennis and fitness, mental training, medical/physiotherapist support and nutrition.

Players on the Elite Team, top-100 track currently include males Ron Ellouck (ranked No. 148), Vova Bazilevsky, Amit Valas, Ofek Shimanov (715), and female players Mika Dagan Fruchtman (226), Karin Altori (541), Mika Buchnik (775) and Vasilina Andronov. Some from this cohort will go on to play men’s and women’s future tournaments, then top level ATP and WTA professional tournaments.

While Felius’ program is predicted to take 10 years before an Israeli is at the top of the tennis world, the David Squad is also hard at work getting young Israelis to the big tournaments – and they predict it will take even less time.

DAVID SQUAD members (from left) Gabriel Rujinsky (coach), Gur Trakhtenberg, Tim Vaisman, Ilan London Menache, Simon Levy, Andy Zingman, Halel Ashoosh pose on the court. (credit: LIDOR GOLDBERG)

The David Squad was started in 2007 by British businessman David Coffer, who at the time was struck by what he saw as a lack of clay tennis court training facilities in Israel. He selected eight of the best juniors and funded a two-week intensive training camp on red clay courts in Spain. The single focus of the David Squad elite training program is to produce Israeli tennis players who win international competitions.

Andy Zingman, Head of Operations of the David Squad and head coach, proudly reports: “We are currently coaching and managing the top-three 15-year-old boys, the best two 14-year-old boys and the top 12-year-old girl. All of them represent Israel at European Championships and are/were highly ranked in Europe U14.”

Zingman, who made Aliyah from Argentina 15 years ago, was ranked No. 18 in the world for U18, was the Argentine singles and doubles national U18 Champion, competed in all four Grand Slams, and has extensive experience coaching junior and professional players. He boldly predicts that all six players in the David Squad elite training program will make it to the US Open within two to four years.

“We just need time for them to grow, get stronger, and absorb the hard work.”
He bases his prediction on accomplishments of the David Squad players so far.
“In the past 15 years the David Squad has grown to become one of the most highly-respected organizations in Junior tennis, having produced international champions, including Junior Grand Slam, Orange Bowl, $10k, $15K and $25K tournaments winners.”

The six players the David Squad is currently working with include:

• Gur Trachtenberg (15 years old, ranked No. 592): Israeli National Champion U12 & U14. Last year he won three Tennis Europe tournaments in a row, won the Israeli Junior National Tournament (U14) and Represented Israel at European Championships.

• Halel Ashoosh (15 years old; ranked No. 1,709): Winner of national tournaments U12 & U14. Last year was the finalist of three U14 Tennis Europe tournaments in a row (lost to Gur). Represented Israel at European Championships U12 & U14.

• Eyal Shumilov (14 years old; ranked No. 1,611): Winner of multiple singles and doubles Tennis Europe tournaments and National tournaments in Israel in 2020. This year he won a doubles ITF tournament with Gur Trachtenberg in Georgia. Represented Israel at European Championships U12 & U14.

• Tim Vaisman (14 years old): This year achieved Best ranking of No. 4 in Europe U14, Represented Israel at European Championships U12 & U14. He was singles and doubles Champion in several TE tournaments.

• Ilan London Menache (14 years old): A new player on the squad who immigrated with his family from Brazil three years ago. Ilan won national tournaments and represented Israel at the U14 European Championships this summer.

• Evelin Bortsova (12 years old): The Israeli National Champion U10, and potentially U12 next month. She won many singles matches and a doubles tournament at U12 Tennis Europe events this year. Evelyn owns a fantastic eye-ball coordination, stroke technique and a winning mentality.
In addition to these players, the David Squad continues to develop promising younger players as part of the David Squad pipeline.

“Throughout the past 15 years we have continued to produce the very best Israeli players, through our professional approach and dedication to the highest standards to produce elite level players, irrespective of lack of support from the wider system,” noted Coffer. “We continue to do so and are extremely excited about our current cohort, which comprises an exceptional group of the region’s top players aged 12 to 15. We are certain each of them will be playing juniors Grand Slam in the short term and very confident about their progression to professional status thereafter.”
While spectators at this year’s US Open will not get to see any Israel other than Erlich in action, they are invited to keep a close eye on the boys and girls working hard at ITEC and through David Squad to become Israel’s next tennis stars. Perhaps one day, one of these young Israelis will be accepting the champions trophy on center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

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Original Article published On the JNS

Traveling to Israel has just gotten tougher since the start of the coronavirus, and the Delta variant isn’t helping. But if you are fortunate to get there, then a world of treasures—Jewish, historical, athletic, culinary and otherwise—awaits.

Walk down Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv or through Jerusalem’s famed Machane Yehuda open-air market at 10 p.m. on a random weekday night, and it’s hard to get a table. Diners are eating schnitzel, drinking beer and discussing surfing, a scheduled (or postponed) trip abroad and the big sale at Ikea (Israel has seven stores), which ended on July 27. During an ordinary summer, tourists from all over the world would freely mix with Israelis at these restaurants.

But this is no ordinary summer. With the exception of a few thousand tourists granted special permission to visit as part of teen tours—Birthright trips, rabbinic groups, Jewish communal leadership and/or missions, or as first-degree relatives visiting Israeli children or parents—very few non-Israelis are enjoying the Jewish state this summer.

Traveling to Israel has just gotten tougher as countries around the world are now being classified by color—yellow, orange and red. The United States became orange on Aug. 11, meaning those fortunate enough to be granted permission to travel to Israel must quarantine upon arrival for seven to 14 days. An active Facebook group, “Reunite Olim With Their Families,” now has more than 10,000 members. Throughout the pandemic, their goal has been to “provide support, help and resources for olim and their families” so as to be reunited in Israel after being separated so long due to coronavirus travel restrictions. The group serves as a place to share resources to help others get approval to be reunited with their families. With few exceptions, only potential travelers with immediate relatives have a shot at visiting Israel right now.

Prior to last March, for most tourists around the world, all that was required to enter Israel was a passport and a plane ticket. Now, Jews simply wanting to put a note in the Western Wall, visit Yad Vashem, eat falafel on Ben-Yehuda Street, hike Masada or celebrate a child’s bar or bat mitzvah don’t have the opportunity. Some out-of-work tour guides have been offering virtual tours of Israel hot spots, but it’s not the same.

I am pleased to be one of the lucky ones, having been granted permission to visit first-degree relatives. With my serological test and Tav Yarok (“green pass”) in hand, I have been able to visit relatives, eat shwarma, drive up and down Kvish Shesh (Highway 6), enjoy Netanya’s beaches (and kosher French pastries), observe massive country-wide construction—and just take it all in. I have visited Israel twice since May, and offer a few observations and insights.

Israeli Jews and Arabs go about their business

For those who haven’t been fortunate enough to visit Israel in two or more years, the country looks the same, and yet different.

When I landed in Israel a few months ago, in May, and began walking down Arlozoroff Street in Tel Aviv (trying to avoid the backhoes and tractors working on the massive light-rail project), I was keenly aware of people’s faces. That would sound odd, of course, during any time but these COVID times. I was seeing hundreds of faces for the first time in more than a year. Not just eyes, but entire faces—people eating and drinking in packed cafes and bars, people swimming, surfing and playing volleyball and old-fashioned matkot (often called “Kadima”) on the beach.

People remained unmasked throughout the two-week visit, but the sense of calm and complacency changed within seconds one evening. While returning to our Tel Aviv Airbnb from dinner, the sirens came out of nowhere, and we followed the lead of fellow Tel Avivians running for cover in shelters or basements, hallways, even under concrete steps. A week of unexpected bombing was underway from terror groups in Gaza. We, and all of Israel, would be in and out of shelters and safe rooms for an entire week. Flights out of Ben-Gurion were canceled, and the chances of returning home in time for a life-cycle or any other event looked bleak.

Construction can be seen throughout Israel. As they say, the crane is the national bird of the Jewish state. Photo by Howard Blas.

While residents of Ramat Gan outside Tel Aviv all the way down to Beersheva were dealing with hundreds of falling rockets—and with their phones, people were filming Israel’s Iron Dome air-defense system knocking most out of then out of the sky—other areas were dealing with riots, fires, looting rock-throwing and stabbings in traditionally calm, mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhoods.

By July, everything had shifted again. A feeling of physical safety—from the Gaza Strip and the Arab sector—had mostly returned. But then, the Delta variant of COVID-16 started getting out of hand, and Israel returned to mask requirements indoors with workers in the private sector encouraged to continue working from home. Government officials were working 50 percent in person and 50 percent remotely. Each of the three Shabbats I spent in shul (in Beersheva and Tel Aviv), mask compliance neared 100 percent after a spring where vaccinations meant faces were visible. What a difference two months makes!

While the news around the world has had a field day reporting on the Ben & Jerry’s boycott announcement of not selling their products to West Bank communities and parts of Jerusalem, and while The New York Times ran a long piece titled, “Riots Shatter Veneer of Coexistence in Israel’s Mixed Towns,” these are far from the big stories in Israel. Ice-cream lovers can still buy Ben & Jerrys in supermarkets and in small stores (though many now don’t want to). And Israeli Jews and Arabs go about their business—together.

The author at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Selfie photo by Howard Blas.

In the ever-expanding city of Beersheva in Israel’s Negev Desert, Jewish, Muslim and Bedouin families wait in lines together at Osher Od or Machsanei Hashuk grocery stores with their overstuffed shopping carts in the checkout line. All have the same goal—to feed large families at the best possible prices. At Soroka Hospital’s many medical specialty clinics, Jewish and Muslim mothers wait for appointments—with Jewish and Arab doctors—and offer each other personal stories, comfort and support.

At the many Israel Tennis Educational Centers in such “mixed” cities as Jerusalem, Jaffa, Beersheva, Tiberias, Haifa, Sajur, Yokneam and Akko, the co-existence program has been bringing Jews, Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, Bedouins and Druze and refugees from many countries around the world together since 1970 to learn and play tennis.

In Israel, life goes on. Coexistence is not a news story.

Israel’s gems, large and small

Drive south down Kvish 6, Israel’s fast north-to-south toll road, and you will see an example of daily life that is not a news story. You will pass the town of Kiryat Gat in the distance, and it is simply exploding. It’s not just home to Intel anymore. Companies such as Hitachi, Zenith Solar and HP-Indigo have a large presence, and construction of upscale apartments and private homes in nearby Carmei Gat are going up everywhere.

After exploring the industrial area and walking the streets of Kiryat Gat, a city that’s home to about 57,000, I set out to tour the Negev Brewery, Noam’s Artichokes and Maresha Estate Winery. To my disappointment, all were closed but a friendly voice on the phone at the winery directed me to Beta Israel Village. To my delight, I discovered a replica Ethiopian village with guides and workshops working hard to preserve and share Ethiopian Jewish life with Israelis and tourists alike. Nearly 4,500 Ethiopian Jews live in Kiryat Gat.

What a pleasure to discover Israel’s gems, large and small. The joke is that Israel’s national bird is the crane. Construction cranes are everywhere—from Jerusalem to Netanya to Beersheva. Names of fancy buildings with apartments in the millions include the Mesila (Jerusalem’s German Colony), T-Towers (Ir Yamin-Netanya) and David Promenade Residences (Tel Aviv). Is Israel, currently a country of fewer than 9 million people, gearing up for the potential immigration for all of the world’s estimated 14 million Jews? No! Israel is gearing up for extraordinary internal growth.

According to projections by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, the country’s population will reach about 12.8 million in 2040. The Central Bureau of Statistics, projects that by 2050, Israel’s population will hit 15.7 million.

Beta Israel Village in Kiryat Gat, Israel. Photo by Howard Blas.

As an example, the entire city of Jerusalem is currently undergoing a massive facelift with every infrastructure project from light rail to roads being addressed at once. The high-speed train from Ben-Gurion International Airport and Tel Aviv’s Haganah station to Jerusalem—a huge time-saver over commuting in terrible traffic—is up and running. A new three-mile road, Road 16, an entry route to Jerusalem, is currently under construction and will connect Route 1 from the Motza area to Givat Mordechai through two tunnels. It will be under the Har Nof and Yefeh Nof neighborhoods.

Renderings of high-rises scheduled to be built at the entrance to Jerusalem will have travelers thinking they are in Midtown Manhattan!

Yet for all of Israel’s growth, in many ways, it’s still the same old Israel. Israelis still earn their name as sabras—prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside. Impatient customers shout at fellow customers and cashiers in checkout lines. Wolt delivery drivers and commuters on scooters, bikes and motorcycles unapologetically come within centimeters of toppling pedestrians. And parking everywhere is a nightmare, especially when every inch of street or sidewalk is deemed to be a legitimate parking space.

And Israel continues to help one another in large and small ways. Benches in cities are filled with clothes and kitchen items for others to take. Produce and meals are offered free to the poor nationwide.

Israel is still teaching the world to save water through drip irrigation and through toilets with two flushers. Israel is teaching the world safe ways to walk on sidewalks while using cell phones—in Tel Aviv, a thin red or green line serves as a walk/don’t walk signal for those waiting for the light to change. And Israel’s food—cuisine that runs the gamut of the world—can’t be beaten. It’s still the Startup Nation, even though the hundreds of startups that don’t get bought out by Google still boast impressive concepts.

It’s just one of the ways the country’s ingenuity and subtle differences make it like no other place in the world, especially for Jews, native or visiting. The entire country—from the most to the least traditional—stops and acknowledges Shabbat in some way. Almost everyone shares Friday-night dinner with family or friends, and cherishes Saturdays for activities at a calmer pace, from traditional synagogue prayer to wind-surfing on the Kinneret.

We pray that the Jewish homeland will soon be ready to welcome the extended Jewish family for a visit.

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