Two years after losing to Israel in an unforgettable playoff tie at Ramat Hasharon, Chile was given a chance for revenge on Wednesday when it was drawn to host Eyal Ran's men in the first round of next year's World Group.
Israel returned to the World Group after a 14-year absence following its 3-2 victory over Chile in September of 2007. Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich gave the team a 2-1 lead just an hour before the start of Yom Kippur after a five-hour thriller, with Dudi Sela claiming a memorable win over then world No. 6 Fernando Gonzalez to clinch the tie.
After reaching the semifinals of the competition this year, the expectations from Israel are understandably high. However, the national team will enter the best-of-five series over the weekend of March 5-7 as an underdog, even though it remains unclear whether Gonzalez will play. The 29-year-old, currently ranked No. 12 in the world, has not played for Chile in the past year due to a dispute with his local tennis federation.
The team lost 5-0 at Croatia in the first round earlier this year, but Paul Capdeville (84) and Nicolas Massu (96) managed without Gonzalez this past weekend, defeating Austria 3-2 in the playoffs. Israel faces an uphill battle even if Gonzalez does not take part, as the tie is expected to be played on clay, to the delight of surface specialists Capdeville and Massu, but to the horror of the Israeli players who choked on the red surface this past weekend, losing 4-1 to Spain in the semis in Murcia.
"There are no easy draws in the World Group," said Ran, who thinks Gonzalez will return to the team in time to face Israel.
"This is one of the toughest draws we could have received. I hope the players will be in good shape in six months time. The fact we faced Spain on clay is an excellent preparation for the upcoming tie."
Chile captain Hans Gildemeister could not hide his delight at being drawn to play Israel.
"This is the best draw we could have gotten," Gildemeister said. "Of all the teams we could have faced at home, Israel is the easiest because its players are not that good on clay.
"However, Israel does have a top-30 player in Dudi Sela and an excellent doubles team, so it won't be easy."
The victory over Chile two yeas ago was a turning point in Sela's career. The 24-year-old beat Massu in the first day before defeating Gonzalez in extraordinary fashion to become a household name in Israel over a single weekend.
"This is a very tough draw and they are the favorites," Sela said. "It is very difficult to play on the road and on clay for a second straight tie, but I believe in our team and I'm optimistic."
Ram claimed that playing Chile away is the toughest draw the team could have got, despite the fact that Israel may have also been paired with Roger Federer's Switzerland, Novak Djokovic's Serbia or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's France.
"The crowd is very volatile in Chile and they are hoping to avenge their defeat in Israel," Ram said. "Chile is the clear favorite even if Gonzalez does not play. However, we have just played the best team in the world on clay, so it can't get any worse."
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