Original Article Published on The JP

Aaron Krickstein’s impressive records still have not been broken.

When many of the world’s top tennis players arrive in Israel for the ATP 250 Tel Aviv Watergen Open September 26-October 2, they will likely focus on the singles and doubles draws, the one million dollars in prize money and hopefully on the historical significance of Israel for the world’s major religions.

Few players or fans are likely to know the tournament’s important place in tennis history.

Tennis legend Jimmy Connors won his final career singles title at the Tel Aviv Open in 1989. But perhaps even more significant is a record broken at the tournament in 1983 when Jewish teenager Aaron Krickstein became the youngest person to ever win an ATP tennis event.

Krickstein, now 55 and still very involved in both the tennis and Jewish worlds, won the Tel Aviv Open at the very young age of 16. Krickstein is also the youngest player ever to break the top 10, a feat he achieved at age 17.

Krickstein’s impressive records still have not been broken. Krickstein recently spoke with The Jerusalem Post from his office at the St. Andrews Country Club in Boca Raton, Florida, where he has served as director of tennis for the past 21 years.

A tennis racket and two tennis balls on a court (credit: VLADSINGER/CC BY-SA 3.0 ( WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

“I still play some exhibitions, corporate events and do appearances, but I am no longer playing senior events. I am too busy with my responsibilities here.”

Aaron Krickstein

“I still play some exhibitions, corporate events and do appearances,” reported Krickstein. “But I am no longer playing senior events. I am too busy with my responsibilities here.”

Krickstein directs all tennis programs and events at St. Andrews and oversees their 14 tennis courts.

Krickstein enjoys reminiscing about what he describes as “a very good career.”

Krickstein’s background in playing tennis

Krickstein was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, began playing tennis at age six, winning the US National Under-16 championship in 1982.

After turning pro at age 16, Krickstein soon thereafter won the Tel Aviv Open in both 1983 and 1984.

“It was very exciting. That first event in Tel Aviv was very special.”

Krickstein played professionally from 1983 through 1996 and achieved a career-high ranking of No. 6 in the world in 1990.

His career, which was plagued by injuries, included winning nine tournaments and being runner-up 10 times. He also played on the United States Davis Cup team from 1985 to 1987, and in 1990. Krickstein’s wide range of injuries included stress fractures in his feet, knee and wrist issues and injuries from a 1987 car accident.

“Injuries caught me at the end. I had quite a few problems at age 28. It wasn’t supposed to happen,” lamented Krickstein, referring to what effectively became the end of his career. Though he added: “I never officially retired!” noting that he tried to come back at age 34.

Krickstein played against all of the greats of his era, including John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Michael Chang and Connors. While Krickstein never won a Grand Slam tournament, he reached the semifinals of both the 1989 US Open and the 1995 Australian Open.

Perhaps his most famous match of all time took place on Labor Day at the 1991 US Open against Jimmy Connors. Krickstein was up two sets to one and was ahead 5–2 in the fifth set. He eventually lost the four hours and 41 minute match in a tiebreaker.

ESPN produced a “30 for 30” film entitled, “This is What They Want.” It is an examination of Connors’s career told through the lens of that epic Connors-Krickstein 1991 US Open match. It has become one of the most viewed matches of all time, partly as it was regularly shown at the US Open during rain delays in the era before the retractable dome.

“The US Open was my favorite Grand Slam,” Krickstein said. “I did my best there. I had some pretty big victories.”

Losing a five setter, as he did with Connors, was uncharacteristic of Krickstein. Krickstein won 27 of his 35 career matches that went to a fifth set. He was affectionately known as “Marathon Man” throughout his career for his uncanny ability to come back and win five setters after being down two sets to zero.

Krickstein and Connors hadn’t spoken much after that match. Then, Krickstein reports, “my club president asked me to reach out.”

Krickstein invited Connors to what became known as “The Reunion Match.” It took place in 2015 in front of 750 people. “[Connors] was gracious and greeted all of the members and stayed all day and all night. I waited until he had two hip replacements and was 65 to beat him.”

Krickstein won the friendly pro set 8–5.

Krickstein and his club have been supporters of Israel and have hosted benefits for ITEC, the Israel Tennis and Education Centers over the years. In 2012, the St Andrews country club community raised money and made a four-year commitment to sponsor a tennis tournament in Israel in Krickstein’s honor. The International Tennis Tournament in Honor of Aaron Krickstein took place in Israel and attracted dozens of teen players from Israel and 14 European countries.

In 2019 and 2020, Krickstein participated in Pro-Am events on the grounds of the Delray Beach Open in Florida. They were hosted by ITEC. Other Jewish tennis pros, including Anna Smashnova, Jesse Levine, and Andy Ram, also participated in the ITEC events.

Krickstein’s connection to Israel and Jewish causes are not accidental.

“For me, Jewish tradition means a lot. I have a long family line and an interesting family tree,” Krickstein proudly noted. “My grandfather comes from a long line of rabbis. There were three generations of rabbis, then my dad was a doctor, then me, a tennis player!”

Krickstein fondly recalls his visits to Israel and his years at the Tel Aviv Open.

“The Israel tournament will always have a special place for me… My mother and father came with me on that first trip to Israel in 1983. They got to enjoy the moment with me.”

Krickstein has enjoyed visiting Jerusalem, the Galilee, the Dead Sea and other “major sites” though he admits that he “doesn’t remember much from that first trip at age 16.

“I was all-in on tennis.”

Krickstein continues to follow tennis and watched the recent US Open.

“Taylor Fritz is pretty talented and Tommy Paul is very good,” he assessed. “US tennis needs someone to break through.”

Despite Krickstein’s ongoing enthusiasm for tennis, he will not be attempting a comeback at the 2022 Tel Aviv Watergen Open, which returns to Israel after a long hiatus.

The Tel Aviv Open was held from 1978 through 1981 and 1983 through 1996 in Israel. In 1990 and 1991 the tournament was known as the Riklis Classic before reverting back to its former name, the Tel Aviv Open. The tournament was scheduled to resume in Israel in 2014 but was canceled due to security concerns arising from tensions in Gaza.

This year’s Tel Aviv Watergen Open will begin on September 26 and take place at Expo Tel Aviv In northern Tel Aviv. Top-ranked participants include Novak Djokovic, winner of 21 Grand Slam singles titles, Dominic Thiem, Marin Cilic and Argentine-Jewish player Diego Schwartzman. The tournament will offer $1,117,930 in total prize money.

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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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Karatsev, who is certainly no stranger to Israel, spoke to The Jerusalem Post after playing in both the singles and doubles draws at the recent US Open.

Aslan Karatsev may be the best Israeli tennis player to come along in years. But the accomplished 29-year-old right-hander, who was a semifinalist in the 2021 Australian Open and is ranked number 39 in the world after reaching a career-high of number 14 earlier this year, is not likely to ever represent Israel at the Davis Cup or the Olympics.

Karatsev was born in Vladikavkaz, Russia, and made aliyah with his family at the age of three, grew up in Israel, and returned to Russia with his family when he was 12 after it seemed likely he would not receive the support necessary to get him to the top of the tennis world.

The fluent Hebrew speaker still has family and friends in Israel and hopes to spend some time with them – perhaps even over Rosh Hashanah – when he returns to Israel to play in the ATP 250 series Tel Aviv Watergen Open, to be held from September 25 to October 2 in Tel Aviv.

Karatsev spoke to The Jerusalem Post after returning to his home in Moscow after playing in both the singles and doubles draws at the recent US Open. He will soon be off to Metz, France, for another ATP 250 event before heading to Israel.

Karatsev is certainly no stranger to Israel.

“This is the place where I spent half of my life, a bit less,” Karatsev noted. “Israel is a warm place. I feel good to always come back to Israel…I grew up there and to play a big event in front of the crowds is something nice. I know many people and have many friends in Israel. So I think playing in the tournament will be special for me.”

“I feel good to always come back to Israel…playing in the tournament will be special for me”Aslan Karatsev

Karatsev was in Israel for a few days in August and hopes to return more frequently.

Aslan Karatsev in action during his quarter final match against Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov (credit: JAIMI JOY/REUTERS)

Several years ago, Karatsev had considered returning to Israel to play tennis.

“There was a conversation four or five years ago. We didn’t find the right solution for both sides. So I said ‘if you cannot offer anything more, I’ll stay where I am right now.’”

Aslan Karatsev’s tennis career, so far

Karatsev has experienced tremendous growth and success in singles, doubles and mixed doubles in the past few years. He played in his first ATP Tour main-draw debut at the 2013 St. Petersburg Open, where he received entry to the main draw as a wildcard. In 2015, he won his first main-draw match on the ATP Tour at the Kremlin Cup. At the 2020 Summer Olympics, he won the silver medal for Russia in mixed doubles with Elena Vesnina.

In March 2021, he won his first ATP doubles title with Andrey Rublev at the Qatar Open. One week later, he won his first singles title. Though he entered the tournament as a wildcard, he defeated South African Lloyd Harris in the finals of the Dubai Open.

One month later, Karatsev defeated world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in his native country at the Serbia Open. Karatsev reached the finals of that tournament.

At the October 2021 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Karatsev reached the fourth round. Later in the month, Karatsev captured his second career title by defeating Marin Cilic in the finals of the Kremlin Cup in Moscow.

The year 2022 has been a busy and productive one for Karatsev as well. In January 2022, he defeated Andy Murray, in the 2022 Sydney Tennis Classic final, to win his third title.

In early August, Karatsev competed in the ATP Masters 1000 Cincinnati where he lost to fellow top-ranked Jewish player, Diego Schwarzman, for the first time. Karatsev had beaten Schwartzman in their two previous meetings – in the 2021 Australian Open and again at the 2021 ATP Masters 1000 in Madrid.

At the US Open two weeks ago, Karatsev lost in a three-and-a-half-hour first-round singles heartbreaker. He had been leading two sets to none against Fabio Fognini, before ultimately losing 1-6, 5-7, 6-4, 6-1, 6-4.

In doubles, Karatsev and partner Luke Saville advanced to the second round before losing to tournament winners, No. 1-seeded Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury. To date, Karatsev has earned a total of $3,277,753 in prize money for his singles and doubles efforts.

Looking ahead to the Tel Aviv Open

Karatsev hopes to increase his earnings in Tel Aviv, though the competition will be fierce. The ATP event offers $1,117,930 in prize money and features some of the world’s top tennis players including Novak Djokovic, a winner of 21 Grand Slam tournaments in singles, former world No. 3 Dominik Thiem from Austria, winner of the 2020 US Open, Cilic and Schwartzman. Other players include Karen Khachanov, Botic van de Zandschulp and Arthur Rinderknech from France.

“We are delighted that the tournament lineup turned out to be very strong,” said Michael Mirilashvili, Watergen CEO and president of the Tel Aviv Watergen Open. “A special thank you to the Israel Tennis Association for the help they provided and their participation in the organization of this event so meaningful for the whole Israel. I hope we will watch some bright tennis which both the players and the crowd will enjoy. Thanks to the TV broadcast, tennis fans in 134 countries will watch the tournament Tel Aviv Watergen throughout the whole week.”

Alison Lee, Executive Vice-President of ATP’s International Group also commented on the event.

“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. 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.”

Karatsev looks forward to doing his part in the tournament. He is also looking forward to spending time with family members as well as with his good friend, Israeli tennis icon, Jonathan Erlich.

“He is going to retire soon. I have been lucky to learn from a legend.”

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The US Open Junior competition draws less attention than the seniors but provides a look into the future of tennis.

Tennis fans and those who just love a good sports story have been focused on the US Open.

Amid all of the deserved excitement for the pro players, juniors are often overlooked. At the US Open, crowds are always small for junior matches – sometimes attracting only 25-50 fans.

At Sunday’s first-round match, for example, 15-year-old Valerie Glozman from Bellevue, Washington, beat Yaroslava Bartashevic of France 7-5, 6-3. The American teenager has been in New York – without her parents – for two weeks as she received a wildcard in the women’s qualifying draw as a result of her good showing as runner-up at the national juniors tournament. In the ensuing round, Glozman got off to a promising start against the No. 1 seed, Sofia Costlulas of Belgium, before losing 3-6, 6-2, 6-2.

“I never expected to be here, Being here was the biggest thing. I am excited to play. My strategy was to mix it up and break her rhythm.”

Valerie Glozman

“I never expected to be here,” said Glozman. “Being here was the biggest thing. I am excited to play. My strategy was to mix it up and break her rhythm.”

Glozman, the daughter of a Ukrainian Jewish father and a Taiwanese mother, regularly trains with hard-hitting male players in Washington due to the lack of available female partners.

Tennis (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Starting at an early age

Some fans (and writers) even find advantages to start following players when they are juniors.

“For me, the big advantage is that very few people pay any attention to juniors, so they are so happy when you cover them and you get to know them,” noted Sandra Harwitt, an experienced tennis writer covering the US Open this year for the Miami Herald.

“They always remember you,” added Harwitt, who has been in touch with Andy Roddick, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Sasha Zverev since they were juniors. The author of The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players of All, Harwitt is keenly aware of the fact that few successful juniors will rise to the ranks of the professional world. She notes, however, that some will “play their entire career in the Futures and Challengers [second and third tier] league.”

Matt Durno of Sharon, MA, was part of the small group watching the Glozman match.

“I am a player and new at it – it is fun to see the level you can achieve in a short time.”

Durno enjoyed watching Glozman and looked forward to sharing his observations with his tennis-playing children.

Other juniors to watch in this year’s tournament include boys No. 1 seed Daniel Vallejo of Paraguay, and Sofia Costoulas of Belgium, the girls’ top seed. Vallejo reached the boys’ doubles final at the 2022 Australian Open alongside partner Alex Michelsen of the United States, while Costoulas reached the girls’ singles final at the same Grand Slam. Both have reached career-highs of world No. 2 in their respective junior rankings.

Where are the Israelis?

There are junior boys and girls to watch from dozens of countries in the world – however, notably not from Israel. But, according to Eyal Taoz, director of Strategy and Projects at Israel Tennis and Education Centers, the wait may soon be over.

In past years, Israeli boys and girls have qualified to play at the US Open. Fans may recall such names as Leria Patiuk, Or Ram Harel, Bar Botzer and Yshai Oliel. But it has been quite a few years since they have been here.

“No one made it this year, but we have juniors ranked around 200 in the world or so, They are making nice progress and getting results.”

Eyal Taoz, director of Strategy and Projects at Israel Tennis and Education Centers

“No one made it this year, but we have juniors ranked around 200 in the world or so,” reported Taoz. “They are making nice progress and getting results.”

Taoz has eyes on such up-and-coming players including Ron Ellouck, Ofek Simanov, Volvo Basilevsky, Mika Buchnik and Karin Altori.

“Hopefully in the next three or four months, some will play in the Grand Slams.”

Some of these players will automatically move up 40 or 50 ranking points when the current 18-year-olds “age out” and are no longer able to play as juniors.

Ellouck, currently No. 1,239 in the world, played in the Wimbledon qualifiers but lost in the first round. He will turn 18 in November and no longer be eligible to play in the juniors.

Simanov, 17, is currently ranked 356 after reaching a career high of No. 272.

Buchnik may be the Israeli with the best shot at qualifying for a major tournament. The 15-year-old female phenom is ranked No. 143. She has been playing tennis since age four and the Tel Aviv native’s impressive accomplishments include a second-place finish in the 2021 U14 World Championship in France and the 2021 U14 Israeli Champion

Altori is a 16-year-old girl with unique family background and great potential. She is currently ranked No. 225 after reaching a high of No. 187. The Bedouin Israeli grew up in Rahat in the south and was inspired by her older brothers, Shadi and Samer, to pick up a racket, which she did at age five. Her family recently moved to Ramat Hasharon so they could train at the Israel Tennis Center there.

With or without Israelis in the US Open this year, the final week promises to be exciting.

And Israeli fans who still want to see more can attend or follow the Israel vs Czech Republic Davis Cup World Group I first-round matches in Tel Aviv on September 16-17, as well as the ATP 250 series Watergen Tel Aviv Open between September 25 and October 2.

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