(photo credit: Associated Press)
An optimistic Israeli foursome met the press on Monday ahead of this weekend's Europe/Africa Zone Group I Davis Cup tie against Serbia-Montenegro at the Tennis Center in Ramat Hasharon.
Captain Eyal Ran, singles players Dudi Sela and Noam Okun and doubles partners Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich were joined by recently appointed Israel Tennis Association chairman Assaf Hefetz and CEO Moshe Haviv to discuss the team's chances against the strong Serbian side.
But shortly after the press conference, it was announced that the visiting team's most experienced player, doubles star Nenad Zimonjic, would not join his teammates in Israel due to a shoulder injury. In his place, Serbian captain Dejan Petrovic has called upon young Viktor Troicki (ranked 336), who will be making his Davis Cup debut.
Although Zimonjic's absence may make things easier for Ram and Erlich, it will not make Israel the favorite. The Serbian players are coming off a strong week at the PBZ Zagreb Indoors event in Croatia. Novak Djokovic (70) reached the semifinals and Ilia Bozoljac (180) qualified and advanced to the quarterfinals before falling to Djokovic. Janko Tipsarevic (127) is the other Serbian singles player.
In the qualifying rounds at Zagreb, Bozoljac defeated Sela (170) and Okun (196) topped Troicki.
"I saw their players in Australia and they were good," Ran, who spent 10 days at the Australian Open, said. "But we must focus on ourselves... I hope that with the home crowd we can close the gap and win."
As always, the Israeli players are anxious to play in front of home crowds, but are also aware of the pitfalls. "I love to play Davis [Cup games] at home," Okun said. "I learned to take the crowd with me and that gives me a lot of energy."
However, he warned Sela, who at age 20 will be playing an important match at home for the first time, to be careful. "It's not easy to play at home, you can be excited and nervous," Okun said. "I hope to pass on to Dudi what I can from my experience."
The best-of-five tie is scheduled to begin with the opening ceremony and two singles rubbers on Friday, the doubles rubber on Saturday and the return singles on Sunday. Rain is predicted for Wednesday and Thursday, though if it last until Friday or beyond and disturbs play, the scheduled can be pushed back as long as it is concluded by Wednesday.
The winner will move on to play Great Britain in April for a right to advance to the World Group qualifying. The losing team will face the loser of the upcoming tie between Belgium and Ukraine in a relegation tie later this year.
Pe'er eases into second round in Thailand
Shahar Pe'er won her opening match at the Pattaya Women's Open in Thailand on Monday, 6-4, 6-2 against Korean So-Jung Kim. She'll take on Spain's Maria Sanchez Lorenzo in the second round.
Pe'er is also slated to compete in the doubles event, together with Australian Nicole Pratt. The Israeli teenager is seeded fourth in both events.
Anna Smashnova will return to action this week in Paris, where she will meet a qualifier in the opening round of the Open Gaz de France.