The past year wasn’t all that outstanding by Dudi Sela’s standards.
But that is what makes it so special.
Ever since he made his breakthrough into the Top 100 of the ATP Tour tennis rankings in 2007, Sela has been a model of consistency.
Sela has carried the flag for Israeli men’s tennis for over a decade.
He has ended 10 of the last 11 seasons ranked in the Top 100 while accumulating 22 titles on the ATP Challenger circuit second all-time and featuring in the main draw in 35 of the past 40 Grand Slam tournaments since the start of 2008.
Despite turning 32 in April, Sela registered his highest year-end ranking since 2009, finishing 2017 at an impressive No. 67 in the world. Sela reached one semifinal and two quarterfinals on the ATP Tour this year, while winning two more Challenger Tour titles. He also won at least one match in the three Grand Slam tournaments he played this year, including reaching the third round in Wimbledon by registering one of the biggest victories of his career, defeating American John Isner in a five-set thriller.
Sela also made headlines away from the sporting world when he pulled out of his quarterfinal match in Shenzhen, China as Yom Kippur was about to commence.
He had asked for his match to start as early as possible to reduce the chance of having to stop it. But his showdown with Alexandr Dolgopolov was scheduled as the second match on center court, meaning he was surely going to have trouble completing it.
After losing the first set 6-3, Sela tied the match with a 6-4 win in the second set. But while trailing 1-0 in the decider, and with Yom Kippur about to begin in Shenzhen, he approached the chair umpire and told him that he needs to retire.
Reaching the semifinals would have earned Sela an additional $12,000 more than the almost $30,000 he had already guaranteed himself by advancing to the last eight. It also cost him 45 ranking points, and of course the chance to go even further in the tournament.
It should therefore come as little surprise that the readers of The Jerusalem Post selected Sela as the Israeli Sports Personality of the Year for 2017.
Muay Thai fighter Nili Block was a close second, with judoka Tal Flicker finishing third. Rhythmic gymnast Linoy Ashram and Hapoel Beersheba owner Alona Barkat were fourth and fifth, respectively.
Sela follows in the footsteps of previous winners: Shahar Pe’er (2007, 2010), Paralympic swimmer Inbal Pezaro (2008), basketball player Omri Casspi (2009), windsurfer Lee Korzits (2011), Paralympic wheelchair-tennis gold medalist Noam Gershony (2012), judoka Yarden Gerbi (2013, 2016), basketball coach David Blatt (2014) and Paralympic rower Moran Samuel (2015).
“Wow. This is amazing. Thank you so much,” Sela told the Post. “I didn’t think I’d ever win something like this. I really appreciate people voting for me. This is really fun.”
Sela was pleased with his accomplishments over the past year, but is hoping for even bigger and better things in 2018.
“I had a very solid year. Didn’t have many ups and down,” he explained. “I improved from a physical standpoint and I changed a few small things in my game. I have also made some adjustments this off-season in the hope that these will help me in 2018. Of course, I had a good year in 2017 and I hope that 2018 will be similar, but I always want to progress in the rankings and in my play.”
The Israel No. 1 isn’t planning on retiring any time soon.
“I feel excellent from a physical standpoint. There has been a significant improvement around the sporting world in this aspect and I remember seeing that around 60 players in the Top 100 are currently over the age of 30,” Sela noted. “After long matches or intense workouts I undergo the proper treatments, which is something that I didn’t always do in the past. I have really improved at taking care of my body.”
Sela is currently in Qatar ahead of his first-ever participation in an ATP Tour event in the Arabian Peninsula. He usually starts his season in India or Australia, but decided that he wanted to begin his 2018 campaign with the new experience of playing a tournament in the Gulf.
One of the main reasons behind Sela’s decision to take part in the $1,286,675 event is the fact that it is run by his good friend, Moroccan Karim Alami, a former player who retired in 2002. Sela faces No. 7 seed Fernando Verdasco in the first round at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex in Doha.
Sela elaborated on how his game has changed with age.
“Physically I feel really good, but from a mental standpoint, the older you get the more you think on the court which can be a positive and a negative,” he said. “I feel pressure a lot more than I did when I was younger, but I know how to deal with it a lot better. When I was younger I’d reach an important point and I just played without thinking too much. Today, I think a lot more during points and that can sometimes hurt you and sometimes help you.”
Sela acknowledged that his decision to retire in Shenzhen due to Yom Kippur was surely one of the main reasons behind his selection as Sports Personality of the Year. He revealed that he had already approached the organizers in Shenzhen following his win in the first round, explaining that should he make the quarterfinals he would need to play early in the day. He spoke with the tournament director once more following his progress to the last eight, but was told that his match would only be second on court.
“I already knew in the morning of the match that I probably wouldn’t be able to complete it. I’m not a religious person, but everyone believes and wants to show respect,” said Sela. “I have religious friends and family and Yom Kippur is only once a year. I wasn’t told by anyone not to play. I just felt that this was the right thing to do.”