Israeli sports

Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

“I am from an Arab family. It’s a privilege for me to interact with my Jewish friends and build new friendships through the years,” Haifa native Rand Najjar, 15, said.

NEW YORK – Monday’s crowd of 68,059 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, was the largest to attend an opening day in US Open history. But those in attendance did not see any Israelis in action. For the first time in many years, there were no Israelis in the men’s, women’s or juniors draws for singles or doubles at the US Open.

That may change in the future if recent efforts of the newly renamed Israel Tennis & Education Centers (ITEC) are successful. But even if the ITEC never produces world class tennis players, they are already producing thousands of tolerant, inclusive citizens who will serve as important ambassadors in of Israel and around the world.

Four promising young Israel tennis players – from diverse backgrounds, home towns and tennis centers across Israel – attended the US Open opening matches to see their heroes in action and to celebrate the conclusion of participating in five tennis exhibitions in eight days in New York, Boston and Cleveland.

Haifa native Rand Najjar, 15, takes part in the High Performance Coexistence Program in Haifa which serves Jewish, Muslim and Christian players. Najjar, who has been playing tennis for 10 years and is considered one of the top players in her age group in Israel, spoke with The Jerusalem Post this week about her experience.

“I am from an Arab family. It’s a privilege for me to interact with my Jewish friends and build new friendships through the years,” she said. “We don’t feel that there are any differences between us. We are all equal. And we feel that the tennis center is such a peaceful place.”

Eden Eneli, also from Haifa and currently a student at Tel Aviv University, coaches in the High Performance program and works with Israel’s national tennis team. While he is pleased to coach players with diverse backgrounds in the city where he grew up, he stressed the much larger role of the Israel Tennis & Education Centers in the lives of the participants.

“My first goal is to educate the next generation. My second goal is to be their tennis coach.”

Nir Skolotsky, 15, who lives in Beersheba and participates in the High Performance program, has played in international tournaments.  He dreams of receiving a full scholarship to study and play tennis n a Division 1 university in the United States.

Tel Avivian Noa Hamenoo, 11, dreams of becoming a professional tennis player and competing in Wimbledon like her idol, Serena Williams.

“I love Serena,” gushed Hamenoo.

Noa Hamenoo – from Tel Aviv – dreams of becoming the next Serena Williams (Credit: Howard Blas)

“[Noa] calls herself the Serena of Israel,” quipped Jacqueline Glodstein, the ITEC Executive Vice President for Global Development.

Hamenoo has not had an easy life and appreciates the opportunities tennis offers.

“I live in an underprivileged neighborhood in South Tel Aviv,” she said. “My parents came to Israel from Ghana, West Africa. I have two sisters and one of them was born prematurely resulting in her having cerebral palsy; she is my inspiration.”

Hamenoo feels the tennis centers are “a safe place where I can come and be with my many friends.”

The youngest, and perhaps liveliest, member of the group was Ariel Kolandarov. The 10-year-old from Tel Aviv, and the top-ranked player in his age group, confidently proclaimed that “I want to be No. 1, like [Novak] Djokovic!” as he playfully signed an autograph.

According to Yoni Yair, ITEC’s Vice President of Development, Kolandarov’s aspirations may not be too far off.

“Ariel is one of the most talented we have ever brought for an exhibition. He has great promise for Israel tennis,” said Yair.

Kolandarov lives with his parents – immigrants in 2002 from Uzbekistan – and his tennis playing sister, Sabrina.

“My parents were both orphans, from the same orphanage in Tashkent, where they met and fell in love. After they married, they made the very difficult move to Israel and settled in Tel Aviv, where we now live. It’s a very poor area, but it’s home. My mom works as a cleaning lady and my dad is a driver. My sister and I receive full scholarships which allows us to benefit from the social services and English language tutoring at the ITEC.”

Over the last 43 years the Israel Tennis & Education Centers has grown and evolved into a social service organization that teaches tennis, offers academic enrichment and mentoring and in the process and empowers thousands of vulnerable children from diverse backgrounds. The foundation started with one center in 1976 and now features 14 centers throughout Israel.

Glodstein noted that people continue to respond positively to the name change—from Israel Tennis Centers to Israel Tennis & Education Centers.

“It is an affirmation of what we do,” she said. “Tennis is just one part of our mission, teaching values and life skills is even more important.”

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

Ofra Friedman, media relations manager, and her team at the Israel Tennis Association haven’t been sleeping much these days.

They have been working day and night to bring the Fed Cup tennis event to Eilat.

In 2016, 101 nations entered Fed Cup by BNP Paribas, making it the world’s largest annual international team competition in women’s sport.

Next week, from February 3-6, Israel will serve as host to Europe/Africa Zone Group I matches. Top players from 14 countries will compete at Eilat’s Municipal Tennis Club. Each Group is initially split into round-robin pools of either three or four countries.

Israel is in a pool with Croatia, Estonia and Turkey. Other nations participating in the fourday event in Eilat include Great Britain, South Africa, Hungry and Belgium. Two nations will advance to the World Group II play-offs.

Israel last played in the World Group II playoffs in 2009. Two nations will be relegated to Europe/ Africa Zone Group II in 2017.

Eilat has hosted the tournament four times – 1995, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

The Fed Cup returns to Israel after two years in Hungary.

Friedman, who played college tennis at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, is proud of the International Tennis Federation’s support.

“This means the ITF really thinks we can handle it well. After a two year break, the Fed Cup returns to Israel. We are hosting it again and we are happy about it.”

“It is a good chance for the Israeli fans to come out and watch a lot of top 100 players in four days of great tennis.”

Bringing a major international tennis event to sunny Eilat is a major undertaking.

The ITA team is responsible for such logistics as supervising player registration, hotel accommodations, credentialing for players, guests and media, VIPs, special requests, organizing press conferences, dealing with ticketing and marketing, liaison work with the Eilat municipality and such logistics as overseeing the giant screen – and the painting of the courts.

High-profile guests likely to be in attendance include Mary Pierce, former No. 3 player in the world who was recently appointed to the ITF’s Board of Directors and Iva Majoli, former No. 4 in the world and captain of the team from Croatia.

The already busy ITA team sometimes need to deal with unexpected issues which arise elsewhere in the tennis world.

Last Thursday morning, Friedman had to turn her attention to an event taking place that day in Australia. Israeli Dudi Sela, 87th ranked, was in the middle of an unexpected comeback against Fernando Verdasco of Spain, ranked 45th, in the second round of the Australian Open.

Verdasco had defeated Rafael Nadal in singles two days earlier, and had defeated Israeli Yoni Erlich and doubles partner Colin Fleming of Great Britain on Wednesday.

Sela went on to defeat Verdasco 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6.

“The media was killing me,” Friedman reports with a combination of pride and excitement for Israel tennis, “Everybody was talking about it. Everyone went crazy over the match.”

Sela was ultimately knocked out by 74th-ranked Andrey Kuznetsov of Russia in the third round, but Israeli tennis has plenty to look forward to just around the corner.

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Original Article at The Jerusalem Post

BROOKLYN – The mood at MCU Park an hour before the first pitch of Sunday night’s World Baseball Classic Qualifier final was so relaxed one might not know it was the “do-or-die” game for Israel and Great Britain.  As the evening went on, the significance of the outcome was clear to all: The loser was going home, while the winner would earn a trip to South Korea in March for Pool B of the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Peter Kurz, CEO of the Israel Association of Baseball, was smiling and schmoozing with Daniel Kurtzer in the stands as the former US Ambassador to Israel and current Princeton professor prepared to throw out the first pitch.

Team Israel player RC Orlan, the 26-year-old left-handed pitcher for the Potomac Nationals was chatting with his father, Adam Orlan, and grandmother, who came up from Richmond, Virginia, to watch their son play.

“I am very proud of Team Israel,” said Adam Orlan.  “It has been a fun experience.” 

Autograph seekers of all ages lined up near the blue-and-white dugout for signatures – with former New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis the clear crowd favorite. Davis patiently signed well over fifty autographs. Both the young fans and their parents were quite appreciative and thankful.

Cody Decker, the third baseman and chief kibitzer, kept order.  When a fan requested an autograph from Decker, who was having a catch with a teammate, he playfully remarked, “Don’t be greedy. I already signed for you… give me a minute!”  

Some experienced older fans came with photos in plastic sleeves in three-ring binders. Who knows who the next star be?  Howard Kaplan of Medford, Long Island, was in search of 21-year-old left-handed pitcher Alex Katz, currently of the minor league Winston-Salem Dash. 

“I’m a fan, a collector and I’m Jewish so I figured I’d come down. I travel all over for autographs!” 

No one was talking about the game yet. 

As the 6 p.m. start time approached, loyal fans began settling into their spots.

Daniel Weiss of Brooklyn, who regularly sits in the first row on first base side for Brooklyn Cyclones home games, was celebrating his birthday at the ballgame. He and a friend were both wearing Cyclones jerseys written in Hebrew. Weiss readied his drumsticks and cowbell on a stand. 

Sixteen-year-old Rina Koegen, a student at the Prospect Yeshiva in Brooklyn, had so much fun at Thursday’s game that she brought her mother along today. 

“I don’t even know who I took pictures of!” remarked her mom, who planned to figure out who is who when she gets home. “My daughter was never a baseball fan, but she is so into it,” she continued.  

“I love rooting for Israel,” added Rina with great excitement, “My brother and I waved pom-poms the other night and made up cheers for each player!”

Weiss had some sense of the game’s importance. 

“My brother lives in Israel and is going to a friend’s house at 1 a.m. to watch it live. Team Israel playing in the World Baseball Classic is good for Israel and baseball in Israel.” 

Adam Orlan also understands what tonight means for his son and for Team Israel. 

“If they win, I am buying tickets and going to South Korea!” 

“You know what – I just might go too!” adds RC’s elderly grandmother. 

The small crowd of 2,016 crowd remained subdued through 41/2 scoreless innings. 

In section two, a fan blurted out, “Some runs before Rosh Hashanah.”

His words were prophetic as they were followed by a pair of two-run homers for Israel in the four-run bottom of the fifth inning.  As the blue-and-white racked up one run in the sixth and seventh and three in the eighth, the fans began to grasp the momentous nature of the game.

Manager Jerry Weinstein was very aware of the significance of the evening.  He brought in Israeli-born Dean Kremer to pitch in the ninth. Kremer was the first Israeli drafted by a Major League Baseball team, when was chosen in 2015 by the San Diego Padres. In the 2016 MLB draft, Kremer was picked in the 14th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the20-year-old played the 2016 season with the Great Lakes Loons, a Dodgers affiliate.

The fans of sections 10 and 12 were on their feet. Kremer struck out the first batter, then gave up a single up the middle.  Then another strike out.  And amid chants of “od echad – one more,” Kremer struck out the side to end the contest.

The crowd goes wild, waving flags, chanting and singing.  Father and son Alex and Allen Golden were proud. 

“It is not just a victory for Team Israel,” notes Alex. “It is a victory for all Jews!  We have a responsibility to care for each other and to celebrate happy occasions together.” 

Allen understands the significance of Israel winning the qualifiers. 

“International baseball is getting more competitive.   Israel deserves a pat on the back for winning today.”

Liam Carrol, manager of Team Great Britain praised Israeli pitcher, Jason Marquis.

“He was outstanding.  He kept our guys off balance.” 

The Israeli players struggled to put in to words what winning the tournament meant to them. 

“Today was real emotional for a lot of us.  Today was special.  Today was perfect,” observed third baseman, Decker, who unveiled a stuffed “Mensch on the Bench” doll he felt was partially responsible for the team’s exceptional performance.

Catcher Ryan Lavarnway thought it was “cool to see all the kids out there in the stands with their yarmulkes on, cheering for Jews on the field.”

Weinstein hopes Israel’s win will heighten awareness of baseball in Israel and lead to even greater participation, more fields and coaches. He would welcome the opportunity to bring the team to Israel if funding is available.

He hopes to bring most of his current team to South Korea, even if he has the option to recruit major leaguers who weren’t available to play in September (due to pennant races) but might be available in March.

“I feel loyal to the group of guys who got us here and we have an obligation to a lot of them.” 

Did Team Israel think it could pull it off tonight and avenge the defeat in the 2012 qualifier final against Spain? 

Pitcher Shlomo Lipetz, a member of the 2012 team, thought they could. As he walked to the bullpen for the start of the game, we reminisced on having met four years ago at City Winery in New York City, site of his day job.

Lipetz smiled and quietly uttered, “I think we got it this time!”

He was right.  Israel is off to South Korea!

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