After coming up just short in the past two years, Israel will be looking to return to the Davis Cup World Group when it visits Japan in the playoffs in Tokyo this weekend.

The blue-and-white needed just two days to open an unassailable 3-0 lead over Portugal in the second round of the Europe/Africa Zone Group I tie at Ramat Hasharon in April to clinch its place in the playoffs, eventually winning 3-2.

However, since falling 4-1 to Chile in March 2010 and dropping out of the World Group, Israel has twice just missed out on regaining its place among the world’s top 16 nations, losing at home in the fifth and decisive rubber to both Austria in 2010 and Canada last year.

The national team faces a completely different proposition beginning Friday, with Japan the firm favorite to advance at the Ariake Colosseum.

Japan may not be considered a tennis powerhouse, but its Davis Cup squad boasts three players in the top-100, while Israel’s includes just about one.

The 22-year-old Kei Nishikori, ranked No. 16 in the world, is the team’s undoubted star, reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian Open earlier this year as well as the last eight at the London Olympics.

Go Soeda (53) will be Japan’s No. 2 player, with Tatsuma Ito (67) and Yuichi Sugita (141) set to team-up in the doubles match as well as providing extra cover for the singles.

Dudi Sela (98) was drawn on Thursday to face Soeda in the first match of the tie, with Amir Weintraub (223) to come up against Nishikori in the second rubber on Friday.

Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich will play Ito and Sugita in Saturday’s doubles match, with the reverse singles to take place on Sunday.

Sela enters the tie in far from ideal form after falling to Japan’s Hiroki Moriya (207) in the first round of the Challenger tournament in Shanghai last week.

The Israel No. 1 claimed the Challenger title in Bangkok the previous week after skipping the US Open qualifiers and he is in an upbeat mood after getting his wish and being drawn to play in the opening rubber in Tokyo.

“I’ve known Soeda for many years. We played each other as youth players and I’m looking forward to meeting him again,” Sela said.

“We are all in excellent form and we will give our best to win.

I hope that we can end the first day with at least one point.”

Much like Sela, Weintraub has also had very little to cheer about in 2012. However, he has raised his level of play in the Davis Cup since making his debut for Israel last March, beating opponents ranked well above him in his opening matches in the team’s last three ties.

“We may not have the crowd on our side this time, but we believe in ourselves,” said Weintraub.

“We are in good form and ready for this tough battle.”

After a 26-year absence, Japan advanced to the World Group with a victory over India last September before losing 3-2 to Croatia on home soil in February to drop to the playoffs.

“That was a tough match,” Nishikori said of the defeat to the Croats.

“Now we have to face a team with veteran players like Dudi and Amir.”

Soeda will be aiming to claim his first career win against Sela.

“His backhand slice is very effective. He has a variety of shots that he can control well,” Soeda said.

“I have to play my game against him. I think I have a chance because this is the first time I will be playing him in a five-set match.”

The only rubber Israel will be entering as the favorite will be the doubles, and Erlich admitted ahead of the trip to Japan that this may be his last Davis Cup appearance.

“This is a very important tie for us. Everyone understands how significant this is to us,” said the 35-year-old Erlich, who is considering retiring at the end of the year.

“I’m not that young anymore and a lot of things are going through my head.

“I will think everything over at the end of the year and decide what to do with my friends and family.”

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