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(photo credit: Lidor Goldberg / ITA)
Andy Ram's success in the mixed doubles final at Wimbledon on Saturday may have a negative side for Israel's recreational tennis players: the courts at your local tennis center could be full for weeks to come.
After Shahar Pe'er's run to the fourth round at the French Open last month, several centers reported three times as many players filling the courts as before. The crowding will get worse now.
These players' achievements at the highest levels are no fluke. For generations the country has produced a relatively high number of world-class players and the Israel Tennis Association's efforts should ensure international successes for years to come.
The plan to bring tennis to the people has seen centers built throughout the country, from Kiryat Shmona and Tiberias in the north down to Beersheba and Ofakim. Last year the first center in a Druse village was opened in Sajur.
There are currently 18 teenage tennis players at the youth academy at the Wingate Institute and recently the ITA decided to focus its efforts on an even younger age group, sending out coaches Oded Jacob and Yuval Higer to scout for prospects aged 8-10.
This summer there are a record 4,000 youngsters enrolled at tennis camps throughout the country. And the attention to tennis can be expected to peak in October, when the Anda Open, the first ever WTA Tour level tournament in Israel, brings some of the top stars in the women's game to Ramat Hasharon for a week-long event.
Even before the ongoing buzz over Pe'er's and Ram's Grand Slam successes, tennis was arguably the most popular and most successful individual sport in Israel. One reason for that is its rich history.
The men's Davis Cup team had a near decade-long run at the competition's highest levels in the late 1980s and early 90s with Shlomo Glickstein, Amos Mansdorf, Shahar Perkiss and Gilad Bloom leading the way.
The next generation saw Anna Smashnova shine on the women's pro circuit, winning 11 career tournaments and and reaching a career-best ranking of No. 15 in 2003. The hope on the men's side, Harel Levy, was ranked as high as 30 at the age of 22 before he was derailed by a hip injury from which he never fully recovered.
Today the mantle has been passed to Pe'er, a 19-year-old who is already closing in on the top 20, and doubles stars Yoni Erlich and Ram, who are among the top five pairs on the circuit today.
The only cloud in the current sunny setup is that top young players too often need money from home to stage a breakthrough. To gain experience, young players must pay their way to tournaments overseas, which costs far more here than it does for a player in Europe, who can often hop onto a train to compete in countless events in neighboring countries.
The ITA, which raises over 70 percent of its budget from private sources and sponsors to begin with, has added more junior events to encourage prospective players, but there just aren't enough to guarantee that we will see players without the advantage of financial assistance at home breaking through in a regular fashion.
Only more sponsors - whether of facilities, tournaments or players themselves - will open even more doors for prospective players to help give fans of the sport the pride they felt when Ram lifted his Wimbledon trophy above his head on Saturday night.
This unfortunately is true not just of tennis, but of all individual sports - as well as most team sports aside from basketball and soccer.
Even the few fields that have delivered Olympic medals for Israel - judo, wind sailing and kayaking - lack the necessary funds to woo participants across the country and identify those most likely to flourish internationally.
Winning prestige abroad is far from the only consideration, however. The sports community needs more funding to better counter the appeal of computer games and television, and get today's youth engaged in more of the physical activity essential to good health.
Government and private funding can help with all this. But so, crucially, must the education system and the parents. If we can make sure that more of our children are outside playing in the afternoons, they'll be a lot healthier and we'll be one step closer to another Wimbledon champ or Olympic medalist.
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