The timing, to say the least, was unexpected.
While it has been clear for a couple of years that Eyal Ran’s reign as Israel’s Davis Cup captain was nearing its end, no one was expecting his departure to come in such unceremonious fashion.
Israel had already lost any hope of beating Ukraine in the first round of the Europe/Africa Group I Relegation Play-Offs after entering the final day of action on Sunday in an unassailable 3-0 deficit.
Nevertheless, it still had the reverse singles to come at Ramat Hasharon and an opportunity to make the final score-line a little more respectable.
While the official announcement was only made after Ukraine completed the 5-0 rout, Ran already notified the Israel Tennis Association earlier in the day that he wants to leave the team effective immediately.
By Monday morning he was already making his way back to the US, where he lives with his family.
What made Ran’s exit even stranger was the fact that Israel is facing arguably its most important tie in recent years in just one month. The blue-andwhite will host Romania over the weekend of October 20-22, with the loser to be relegated to Group II.
Israel last played in Group II in 2001.
In his announcement, Ran said that he really wanted to be at the helm for that tie as his father wasn’t allowed to play table tennis in Romania due to his wish to leave the then-Communist country for Israel 50 years ago.
“Nevertheless, I felt this was the time to pass the reins,” explained Ran.
“And I’m happy I’m leaving behind a strong, united and committed team for many years and I’m certain that whoever replaces me will keep the team in Group I.”
The ITA wasted little time in finding a replacement, naming Harel Levy as the new captain after less than 24 hours.
Ran took over the team from Oded Jacob in an almost identical situation in 2005. Israel visited Zimbabwe in a tie it had to win to avoid relegation to Group II. Dudi Sela, Noam Okun, Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich led the blueand- white to a 4-1 victory.
That win was followed by a loss to Serbia at the start of 2006, but it wouldn’t be long before the team’s fortunes took off. A run of four straight victories, capped by the memorable 3-2 triumph over Chile in September 2007 – secured by Sela’s thrilling fiveset win over then world No. 6 Fernando Gonzalez at Ramat Hasharon – saw the blue-and-white reclaim its place in the World Group for the first time since 1994.
Israel played in the World Group in four of the subsequent seven years, remarkably reaching the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Spain in 2009.
Even when the side was relegated to Group I in 2010, 2011 and 2013 it went on to win its next tie and advanced to the World Group playoffs.
It is a run of results no one is expecting Levy to emulate and makes Ran by far the most successful captain Israel’s Davis Cup team has ever had.
But with few Israeli players breaking through in recent years, results soon suffered, and two consecutive 5-0 defeats to Portugal and Ukraine, a humbling streak the team last experienced 50 years ago, have left the side on the brink of relegation.
The fact the squad is still dependent on two players (Sela and Erlich) who were also there 12 years ago doesn’t bode well for the future.
Israel will be the favorite against Romania next month, but it seems to be a question of when, rather than if, Israel will be demoted to Group II.
Ran hailed Yshai Oliel, Edan Leshem, Daniel Cukierman, Ben Patael and Mor Bulis as the future of the team, but they are clearly far from ready to lead the side.
One of Levy’s main missions is to blend them into the team while somehow keeping it in Group I. The 32-year-old Sela likely only has a couple of more years in his prime, which can’t even be said about the 40-year-old Erlich.
Levy knows them both very well, being an integral part of the team that made the semis in 2009. The 39-yearold Levy reached a career-best ranking of No. 30 in the world in June 2001, but his career took a fateful turn for the worse that same summer.
He suffered a right hip injury and went on to spend much of the remainder of his career on the Challenger circuit.
Levy went into coaching soon after his retirement, being named as the professional director of the Israel Tennis Centers.
The CEO of the ITA and Israel’s first world class player, Shlomo Glickstein, is confident Levy is the right man for the job.
“I’ve known Harel for many years.
He is serious, intelligent and a leader,” Glickstein told The Jerusalem Post. “He was a top player and has a lot of knowledge. I told him that I will help with whatever I can and that he has my full support.”
Glickstein admitted he didn’t see Ran’s announcement coming.
“I was surprised by the timing. The plan was for him to continue until the end of the year regardless of the results. But I understood his feelings and wishes and respected them,” said Glickstein. “Eyal thinks we will win the tie against Romania and that this can be a good start for the new captain.”
Ran told Glickstein that he didn’t want to continue traveling back and forth to the US and that after 12 years he felt it was time to move on.
While Glickstein is hopeful Israel beats Romania, he conceded the team may well once more find itself battling relegation in 2018. He is confident Israel’s youngsters have the talent to one day lead the team, but he knows it is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
“We need to be very patient, but I believe these guys will continue to improve and step into the shoes of the veterans,” noted Glickstein.
“One of the new captain’s goals, with the help of myself and the ITA, is to build a strong and united team that will see the side return to its glory days.
“It will take time, but we are patient,” added Glickstein. “Even if it will come at the cost of being relegated to Group II that isn’t the end of the world. We need to look a few years forward and build these players so that we will have a strong team that will be able to stay in Group I for many years and also maybe battle for a place in the World Group.”