There are few tennis courts in Israel that can compete with the spectacular backdrop of Sajur.
Based in the hills of a Druze town in the Upper Galilee in the North of Israel, the Israel Tennis Center – Sajur complex provides beautiful scenery, as well as excellent facilities, for players and spectators alike.
From this past Saturday, the Sajur center has also got another claim to fame, becoming the sight of Yshai Oliel’s first title at the senior level.
It may have only been a Futures circuit event, the lowest of the professional ranks, handing out total prize money of $15,000. But it is nevertheless a landmark achievement in the career of a player who was earmarked as the future of Israeli tennis when he was 12.
Oliel, who will turn 18 in two weeks, defeated Tom Jomby of France 7-6 (6), 6-2 in the final, and lifted what he, and Israeli sport as a whole, are hoping will be the first of many titles.
Oliel barely celebrated the triumph, telling The Jerusalem Post
following his round of 16 victory at the Israel national championships in Ra’anana on Tuesday that he is focused on far greater goals.
“I was excited inside. I didn’t show it because I don’t need to show it. This is a landmark for me, but I need to leave it behind and win many more of these tournaments,” said Oliel after advancing to the quarterfinals in Ra’anana with a 6-0, 6-4 win over Gal Yair. “Like in every tournament, I want to play well and give my all, and most importantly, enjoy myself.”
Oliel, who last year became just the second Israeli to reach a boys’ final at a Grand Slam event in the Australian Open, has been making headlines even before he was a teenager.
In December 2014, he became just the ninth boy to capture both the 12s and 14s titles at the prestigious Junior Orange Bowl International in Florida, joining among others past champs Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro.
Oliel didn’t manage to emulate his success in Melbourne in the three remaining Grand Slams, but coach Jan Pochter, who has worked with Yshai since he was four years old, said they made a conscious decision to sacrifice short-term results in order to accomplish more significant long-term goals.
“Yshai started the year really well and reached the final in Australia, but when we assessed with him the way in which he reached the final we came to the conclusion that in order to continue and improve and reach the highest levels we need to improve some elements in his game and that initially may come at the expense of results,” explained Pochter. “We worked on being more offensive, on going to the net and using the slice more. We determined that we need to work on these things to succeed in the long run. We also added a sports psychologist to the staff so that we would have everything to operate at the highest possible level.”
Oliel, who will focus on Futures and Challenger circuit events this year while only playing two boys’ tournaments at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, admitted that he let the pressure get to him after the success in Melbourne.
“After reaching the final in Australia there was a lot of pressure on me and expectations from me in the other Grand Slams and I couldn’t cope with it,” he said. “But I believe that I have matured and I’m hoping to play well in the junior events at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.”
Oliel has been supported over the past nine years by the David Squad, which was set up a decade ago by David Coffer, a Jewish businessman and philanthropist from Britain, and his son Adam.
The David Squad, named after ancient Israel’s King David, was set up after David Coffer recognized the distinct lack of clay court training available in Israel. He financed a two-week trip for eight of the best Israeli junior prospects at the time to come and train on the red clay in the south of Spain and went on to establish what has become the leading independent tennis academy system in Israel.
“It’s an important first major step in search of ATP points and professional playing level,” said David Coffer after Oliel’s recent triumph in Sajur. “We are all so proud of Yshai and his staff, they have reached this after 10 years of support by the David Squad and we believe that Yshai will be the first of many champions from the David Squad.”
Oliel is extremely grateful for the backing he receives from the David Squad, saying that he really hopes “that I can give them a lot more to be proud about.”
“It sounds like a cliché, but the David Squad is like a family that supports you, even when the going gets tough,” added Pochter. “They believe in you and this is one of the things that give us the strength and belief to continue even when things aren’t going so well.
Without this Yshai would certainly not be where he is right now.”
Oliel is currently ranked at No. 778 in the world and Pochter is confident it is only a matter of time until he makes his breakthrough.
“Because he has been around for so many years people forget that he still has another year of eligibility as a youth player,” said Pochter. “We really are trying not to get ahead of ourselves.
“The same way Yshai was one of the best players in the world for his age group when he was 12 he is also today one of the leading players in the world in his age group,” added Pochter.
The next big target for Oliel is to break into the world’s top 250 which is usually good enough to secure a berth in the qualifiers of a Grand Slam event.
But both Yshai and his coach are aiming far higher.
“That is the first stage, but of course we have bigger targets,” said Pochter.
“Both I as his coach, and Yshai as a competitive child, are aspiring for the very top. It is pretentious to say that we are targeting the top five of being the world No. 1, but we really believe in that and are aspiring for that. Only time will tell if he makes it or not, but our ambition and desire is to be there. But we are realistic and understand that we have to take one step at a time.”