(photo credit: AP)
Israel's Davis Cup captain Eyal Ran believes his team can make history this weekend, despite the controversy surrounding the World Group first round tie in Malmo.
Israel faces Sweden in front of empty stands due to threats of massive protests against the IDF's offensive in Gaza.
But Ran is still hopeful the national team can reach the last eight of the Davis Cup for only the second time in its history, and for the first time since 1987.
"I think this is a historic opportunity to claim a win in the World Group and progress to the quarterfinals," he told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
"We will enter every one of the five matches feeling we can win it and if we manage to claim three of the encounters over the weekend we'll be delighted."
Beating seven-time champion Sweden on the road would have been regarded as an almost impossible task in past years, but the current team is a pale shadow of the legendary sides which claimed the title three times, both in the 80's and in the 90's.
To make matters even worse for the hosts, they are without their current top player, Robin Soderling (26 in the world), leaving captain Mats Wilander with no option but to select two players well best their prime.
In the first match on Friday, Israel's Harel Levy (241) plays Sweden's number one, 34-year-old Thomas Johansson, who won both his singles matches in Sweden's 3-2 victory at Ramat Hasharon last year, but is currently only ranked 178th in the world and hasn't played a competitive match since October of last year.
In the day's second match, Dudi Sela (63) faces 27-year-old Andreas Vinciguerra, who at his best in 2001 was placed 33rd in the world, but isn't even ranked these days as he hasn't played an ATP tour match since 2006.
"My foot has been better with each day of practice. I love to play Davis Cup and this tie has been my goal during my whole rehabilitation," said Johansson, the 2002 Australian Open champion, who will be making his comeback from Achilles surgery.
"Of course this is different and I don't know for sure that the knee is holding up," Vinciguerra said on Thursday. "I have felt good during practice and I'm very happy to play, but five-set matches will be tough."
Despite Sweden's relatively weak squad, Ran is not underestimating the hosts.
"Both their players are very good and used to be at the very top of world tennis," he said. "On a given day they can play at their best and their current ranking is not so relevant. However, the most important thing is that we focus on our own performance."
Andy Ram, who is slated to play Saturday's doubles match with Amir Hadad as Yoni Erlich is out through injury, blasted the International Tennis Federation on Thursday for not doing enough to prevent the tie from being played without fans.
Ram said the ITF should have put more pressure on Malmo officials who decided to play the first-round tie in a closed arena because of fears of demonstrations and protests against Israel.
"They say it's bad but they don't do anything. They have to act," the doubles specialist told The Associated Press after Thursday's draw.
Ram said the ITF should have issued an ultimatum to the Swedish organizers: play with a crowd or the venue will be moved to another country.
"Now it's too late," Ram said. "Politics won over sports. That's sad. You don't see that very often in tennis."
Ram was embroiled in an international controversy last month after Shahar Pe'er was denied entry into the UAE for the WTA's Dubai Tennis Championships.
After an international outcry against the decision, Ram was allowed to play in the men's tournament the following week.
Ram and Hadad will face Simon Aspelin and Robert Lindstedt on Saturday.
Thousands of protesters are planning a demonstration Saturday against Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Around 1,000 police officers have been called in to keep the protesters away from the Baltic Hall arena.
Johansson urged them not to interfere with the match.
"What happened in Gaza was horrible, everyone thinks so. But you have to separate between sports and politics," he said.
"Obviously it would have been better to play with fans, but the decision has been taken and we've trained without fans all week," the captain said."I don't think sports and politics should be mixed."
AP contributed to this report