Dudi Sela will make his Davis Cup debut in the first possible tie on Friday when Israel faces Zimbabwe in a Europe/Africa Zone I relegation tie at the City Sports Center in Harare.
Sela, Israel's top ranked male on the ATP Toup at 160 will face Zimbabwe's Wayne Black at 1 p.m., followed by Israel's Noam Okun (180) vs Genius Chidzikwe (734). Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich are scheduled to face Black and Chidzikwe in doubles on Saturday. Sunday, the final day of the five-match tie, will see Sela start against Chidzikwe followed by Okun vs Black.
The loser of the tie will fall to Europe/Africa Zone II, while the victor remains in Zone I and can hope to advance to the World Group next season. This is Israel's second tie of the year. In March, Israel lost 3-2 to Great Britain in Ramat Hasharon.
Sela, 20, is quite motivated for his match and excited to be part of the team. "It's great to be here. The team has welcomed me with open arms and I hope to have fun with them just like when we meet overseas at other tournaments. They offer me advice and give me direction," he said.
"I'm very excited to play for the national team, it's even more exciting that when I played [world No. 1] Roger Federer at the French Open. This is no regular match because I'm representing Israel. I'm aware of what's riding on my shoulders and intend to give 100 percent to come away with a good feeling and the win."
This is the third time that the two teams are meeting in Davis Cup play and the first time in Africa. In 1964, Zimbabwe then Rhodesia won 4-1 in Tel Aviv. Two years ago Israel eased to a 5-0 sweep over a weakened Zimbabwe side at Ramat Hasharon. Okun won two singles rubbers, Erlich won another in his only Davis Cup singles appearance, and Ram and Erlich teamed to take the doubles as Israel dropped only one set throughout the tie.
Chidzikwe lost to Harel Levy and took part in Zimbabwe's doubles defeat. Gwinyai Tongoona (1,271), the third Zimbabwean player in this tie, lost the first rubber 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 to Okun.
It certainly won't be such smooth sailing for the blue-and-white this time. Zimbabwe's home-court advantage may affect the Israelis in two ways. The home crowd is reported to be quite partisan at the 4,000-seat indoor arena and the high altitude Harare is 1,500 meters above sea level can change the way the balls fly and make it difficult for the Israelis to breathe.
Black, who no longer plays singles on the ATP Tour, must carry the burden of his team's hopes. The 31-year-old, who together with countryman Kevin Ullyett makes up one of the best doubles teams on the circuit, has a strong track record against the Israelis he'll be facing. Black defeated Okun twice during his singles days, once in 2000 and once in 2003, both times in straight sets. He also has a 6-1 career record with Ullyett against Ram and Erlich.
But Ram thinks those past matches have little bearing on this tie. "It's a completely different kind of game," Ram told The Jerusalem Post earlier this week.
Ram also said that the fact that he and Erlich are so familiar with Black's doubles game they've met five times in 2005 already doesn't necessarily mean they can help Sela and Okun prepare for the singles rubbers. "What he does with Ullyett in doubles won't help him against Dudi or Noam in singles."
Similarly Ram believes that Black will have a tough time adjusting to a new partner for the doubles rubber. Chidzikwe, 26, has never faced any of the Israeli players, aside from Ram and Erlich in the previous Davis tie.
All live rubbers are best-of-five sets. After one team has clinched victory the umpire may reduce any remaining rubbers to best-of-three.
Israel was last relegated to Zone II in 1999 after losing ties to Finland and Ukraine. It bounced back to Zone I two years later via victories over Poland, South Africa and Luxembourg.