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Tennis - the 'white sport' - has always been considered prestigious, perhaps even aristocratic. Traditionally, tennis players used to dress in white and play on private tennis courts in upper-class areas, and this practice still remains today in the most famous tennis court, Wimbledon. The game indeed has a certain status, and is not accessible to all.
For these and other reasons, tennis has never been a particularly popular sport in Israel. Few are interested in it and seldom do we find tennis players on a high enough standard to compete internationally. There have, of course, been some rare exceptions, such as Amos Mansdorf in the 1980s and 1990s, Anna Smashnova who recently retired from professional tennis and we now have a new tennis "wonder" - Shahar Pe'er, not to mention the Australian Open doubles champions, Jonathan Ehrlich and Andy Ram.
In a golden moment for Israeli tennis, both our women's and our men's tennis teams recently made great strides forward. Last week, our women's team competed against Russia in the International Tennis Federation's Fed Cup match, in order to pave the way to the Beijing Olympics. The men's team just lost to Sweden, one of the best teams in the world, in the Davis Cup first round - but in a valiant effort. This was the first time in 14 years that Israel had gone up to the Davis Cup World Group.
THESE achievements are, indeed, a reason to party. But in Israel, parties such as these have a different meaning - very local, very "Israeli" and ultimately, very disappointing.
The crowds that flocked to the Ramat Hasharon Tennis Stadium for the match between Israel and Russia had been told that support from the audience can help. That's fine, the audience can always help. However, it seems that someone also told them that the audience can distract the opponent, as well. Thus, during the match, we saw 6,000 spectators mimicking the famous grunts of Maria Sharapova, one of the world's top tennis players. They also made every effort to break the concentration of the other two Russian players.
THIS BEHAVIOR on the part of the Israeli spectators raised the ire of the Russian guests - and justifiably so. Moreover, it didn't even help. The visitors won an easy 4-1 victory and went on to the next stage in the Fed Cup games, but it left a sour taste. The crowd at the Ramat Hasharon Stadium were no doubt oblivious to the fact that they gave Israel and Israeli sports a bad name. After all, that's how we always act at football matches and even at basketball games. Verbal and physical violence are an inherent part of the game with us - the players, the coach, the opponents' fans are all subject to vulgar insults, profanities and even assault.
A couple of months ago, a security guard was seriously injured when a firecracker was thrown onto the basketball court in Jerusalem. Players and coaches have also been injured on other occasions, and the police have been forced to intervene. The odious practice of making monkey sounds when African players came onto the field is still fresh in our collective memory, even though it no longer takes place, not because we have become more educated or cultured, but because just about every team in every sport today has African players and we can no longer ridicule them.
The Israeli sports fans have now transferred these notorious phenomena to the tennis courts and I cannot think of a less appropriate setting for such behavior. Tennis is the sport of gentlemen and ladies, who treat each other with respect. Players of this sport apologize to one another for their mistakes and act with dignity.
Israel is trying very hard to be accepted as part of the western world. For years we have fought for the right to participate in European sports contests, contrary to the tendency to put us together with Africa and Asia. We are now struggling for acceptance in other spheres, such as the prestigious economic forum the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. We claim that although we are geographically located in the east, we actually belong to the west.
Last week's events have cast serious doubts over that contention.
The writer is senior vice president and director-general of UJC Israel and a former IDF Spokesman.
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