Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich defeated Zimbabwe's Wayne Black and Gwinyai Tongoona 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 in the doubles rubber to take a controlling 2-1 lead in the teams' Europe/Africa Zone I relegation tie at the City Sports Center in Harare on Saturday.
A win by either top racquet Dudi Sela or Noam Okun in Sunday's reverse doubles will keep Israel in Zone I for the fifth year in a row and give the blue-and-white a shot at advancing to the world group for the first time since 1994.
Sela, who lost to Black in the opening rubber on Friday, will face Genius Chidzikwe at 1 p.m., followed by the fifth rubber, scheduled to be between Okun and Black. Should Sela seal an Israeli victory by defeating Chidzikwe in the first match, Zimbabwe's non-playing captain Claudio Murape could send Tongoona to play in place of Black. Similarly Israeli captain Eyal Ran could send Ram out for Okun.
Ram and Erlich were expected to have little problem against Black and Tongoona, despite the fact that Black and his usual partner, countryman Kevin Ullyett have all but owned the Israeli pair on the ATP circuit. Ullyett, who no longer resides in Zimbabwe, skipped the tie to be with his wife who is expecting their first child.
The first set started equally and Zimbabwe looked poised to break through when Black and Tongoona earned a pair of break points on Erlich's serve in the fifth game. But The Israelis came back to win the game, break their opponents next two service games and take the set.
The pattern continued in the next two sets as Ram and Erlich broke serve in the eight game of the second set to go up 5-3 and again in the seventh game of the third set to go up 4-3 on the way to the win.
"This match was very important for us," Erlich said after the match. "We wanted to take the point so that we could start [Sunday] with an advantage. We started the first set strong... and broke them early and that gave us the confidence and control we needed.
"Afterwards we were already loose. We played well and were better than them. We were under pressure coming in because when the score is 1-1 in Davis [cup play] there is always pressure, and I'm glad we withstood the pressure and took the point."
Erlich, who was instrumental with two wins when Israel crushed Zimbabwe 5-0 two years ago in Ramat Hasharon, has confidence in his teammates for the deciding rubbers. "I believe that Dudi and Noam will get the job done tomorrow. I'm sure that Dudi can get it done and if not, Noam has enough Davis experience in deciding matches to win."
Okun has won all three of his previous fifth-and-deciding rubber matches in the past, including a grueling five-set encounter against South Africa's Marcos Ondruska in 2001 that saw Israel through to Zone I.
Zimbabwe jumped out to a 1-0 lead on Friday when Black, a former top 100 singles player who now concentrates solely on doubles, defeated Sela 6-1, 7-6(4), 6-7(2), 6-3.
"The key came in the sixth game of the fourth set," Sela later explained. "Black led 3-2 and I served. It was a long game and he managed to break me. He then held serve and went on to win.
"All in all it wasn't a bad game, [but] the court and conditions favored [Black]. I'm very disappointed, I learned a lot from the match and if I would have won that game, I would have won the match, because he was already tired. In the end his experience made the difference."
Okun followed with a convincing 6-2, 7-6(3), 6-3 win over Chidzikwe. The Israeli eased through the first set before Chidzikwe fought back in the second. Okun broke to go up 5-4, Chidzikwe broke back and it went to a tiebreaker.
"In the tiebreaker, I was aggressive, raised my level [of play], took control and won the set," Okun said. "The third set was easy... I played well although I had some trouble towards the end, but fortunately I took the important points and won."
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