Sinai says: Israeli men’s tennis is teetering on the edge of the abyss

With Ram retiring, Erlich likely following suit soon, and Amir Weintraub’s injury-plagued career in tatters, Israel’s Davis Cup squad is facing an overhaul.

By
September 10, 2014 01:29
Tennis duo Erlich and Ram

Tennis duo Erlich and Ram . (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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This may sound slightly over-dramatic, but Israel’s Davis Cup side is teetering on the edge of the abyss, facing a bleak future after a relatively golden period.

Should Israel’s Davis Cup team fail to beat Argentina and progress to the World Group this weekend, there is no telling when it might get another chance to join the world’s elite.

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With Andy Ram retiring, the 37-yearold Yoni Erlich likely following suit in the near future, and Amir Weintraub’s injury-plagued career in tatters, Israel’s squad is facing an overhaul.

And with the next generation of players so far showing little promise, a place among the top 16 nations in the World Group could quickly become a distant pipedream for Israel’s men.

Israel first played in the World Group in 1987 and was part of the top tier for four of the next six years. The 3-2 defeat to Belgium in September 1994 marked the end of the road for a generation led by Amos Mansdorf, Gilad Bloom and, previously, by Shlomo Glickstein.

Israel’s greatest ever men’s player, Mansdorf, retired following that tie, and the team went on to wander the Davis Cup wilderness for the next 13 years.

Israel’s lowest point arrived when it lost to Norway in a Europe/Africa Zone Group II tie in April 2000, but it followed that up with four consecutive wins to return to Group I and slowly continued to progress throughout the first decade of the 21st century.



Another run of four straight victories, capped by the memorable 3-2 triumph over Chile in September 2007 – secured by Dudi Sela’s thrilling five-set 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 advance to the World Group playoffs.

Israel will play in the World Group playoffs for the fifth straight year this coming weekend when it hosts Argentina in Sunrise, Florida after the ITF ruled that the tie can’t take place in Israel due to the security situation.

The national team has been in the World Group or at its cusp for the past seven years, but the seven years of plenty are about to end and the famine will soon set in.

Another 14-year World Group drought, like the one between 1994 and 2008, could well be on the cards.

After 14 years of service, Andy Ram will play his final match for Israel this weekend, looking to record his 16th win from the past 18 Davis Cup doubles matches with Yoni Erlich.

Since September 2005, the Israeli duo has dominated its opponents, all but ensuring that the blue-and-white could count on receiving at least one of the required three points from the doubles encounter in every tie.

“This is the right time,” said Ram when announcing his retirement back in April. “I have experienced so much and I wouldn’t pass on any of it, the good or the bad.”

Ram was never the same player after undergoing surgery to repair a muscle tear in his right hip in October 2012.

His partnership with Erlich was one of the most successful and colorful in Israeli sports history, with the two making their breakthrough in Wimbledon in 2003 when they reached the semifinals before going on to win the doubles title at the 2008 Australian Open.

Ram and Erlich will be playing together for the last time this coming Saturday and it won’t be long before Erlich also joins his long-time partner in retirement, leaving Israel without any decent doubles players.

In fact, the only component of the current team which can be counted upon in the near future is Dudi Sela.

The 29-year-old, who is ranked at No.

84 in the world, hasn’t enjoyed much success in the Davis Cup over the past couple of years, winning just one of eight matches since September 2012.

However, he is by far Israel’s most consistent performer on the ATP Tour and will have to carry an even heftier burden in the coming years.

Amir Weintraub, who celebrates his 28th birthday next week, has backed up Sela with resounding success over the past couple of years, winning at least one match in six of the seven ties he has played since making his Davis Cup debut in March 2011.

However, he remains a doubt for the playoff tie against Argentina having played just one match in more than three months due to a groin injury. He underwent surgery in late July after unsuccessfully trying to overcome the pain with injections and returned to training three weeks later. Nevertheless, he is still not moving well, and while he remains optimistic he will be able to play, he admitted he is far from his best.

The real problem for Israel captain Eyal Ran is that there is no depth beyond Weintraub, whose ranking has dropped to No. 263 and who admitted last month that his career is in danger.

The likes of 18-year-old Tal Goldengoren (695), 20-year-old Bar Botzer (776) and 21-year-old Dekel Bar (889) aren’t currently ready to become full fledged Davis Cup players for Israel.

Yshai Oliel is one name for the future, but he is just 14-years-old and it remains to be seen if he can realize his potential and become a top player.

Should Weintraub fail to regain top form, Israel’s Davis Cup team could soon be comprised of Sela, Goldengoren, Botzer and Bar. As things currently stand, such a squad would not only have virtually no chance of advancing to the World Group, but would likely also struggle to survive in Group I.

A victory over Argentina would ensure at least one more year in the World Group before the bleak future arrives, but the blue-and-white will be entering the tie as a firm underdog.

Argentina will be led by Leonardo Mayer (25), Carlos Berlocq (67) and Juan Monaco (102), with Horacio Zeballos (ranked No. 63 in doubles) the team’s doubles expert.

Playing the tie in Florida complicates matters even further for Israel, although the Israel Tennis Association is hoping that the 2,300 seats in the stadium will be filled by local Jews.

“Amir isn’t in top form and we can’t expect him to beat Argentina,” admitted Ram. “Our team in general isn’t at its best and we are clearly the underdog.

If we had a 20-30 percent chance of winning in Israel now we have a 10 percent chance with the tie being played in Florida. Nevertheless, we have recorded crazy results in the past and I believe we can do so once more.”

Apart from Ram’s ability, Israel’s Davis Cup team will also sorely miss his optimism.

However, considering the blueand- white’s current prospects, even Ram would find very little to be upbeat about.

allon@jpost.com

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