The national Davis Cup team left Sunday night for the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, where it will face the host nation over the weekend in a crucial Europe/Africa Zone I relegation tie.
But there was little tension earlier in the day whey the team conducted its final practice at the Israel Tennis Center courts in Jerusalem, where it trained to help prepare for the high altitude in Harare.
Although it may seem that the short trip from Tel Aviv wouldn't affect the form of world-class tennis players, the thin air changed things for nearly all the players. "We couldn't practice on our first day here," doubles star Yoni Erlich told The Jerusalem Post during a break between drills. "The balls fly faster and are more difficult to control... And you run out of air quicker."
Erlich, who together with Andy Ram makes up one of the best doubles teams in the world, could only think of a few places on the ATP Tour that have similar altitudes and stressed that the home advantage for Zimbabwe will be a large one.
Harare is nearly 1500 meters above sea level. Jerusalem is about half of that.
Erlich explained that the travel dates had been carefully chosen, because research shows that the body needs four days to adjust to high altitudes. The tie begins on Friday.
Ram was not at all bothered by the altitude change, in part because he grew up in Jerusalem after his family immigrated from Uruguay. But Ram added another reason, while taking a poke at his teammates, "it's because I'm in the best shape of all the players."
Ram pointed out that Dudi Sela, the youngest member and newest addition to the team, is also in good shape and adjusting well. Sela, who is the highest ranked Israeli at 163 in the world, will likely play singles in his debut. Okun (172) is also expected to play singles, although team captain Eyal Ran will only announce the lineup after the players practice in Harare.
Zimbabwe will be represented by Wayne Black, who no longer plays competitive singles, but was a top 70 player in his prime, Genius Chidzikwe (875) and Gwinyai Tongoona (1494). Zimbabwe tennis heads tried to convince Wayne's older brother and former star Byron Black to come out of retirement for the tie, but the elder Black refused.
Wayne Black and his countryman Kevin Ullyett have caused Ram and Erlich fits on the doubles scene, defeating them last month in the US Open quarterfinals and before that in the Montreal Masters final, but Ullyett will skip this tie, reportedly due to family commitments.
During Sunday's training session, Ram announced that he had proposed to his girlfriend of more than nine years, Shiri Zlotikman, and that the former tennis player had accepted, which further lightened an already loose practice. Although the players all knew already, it allowed them to begin teasing the groom-to-be publicly.
Ram and Erlich, who have plenty on their plates with the Zimbabwe tie coming up and the race to finish the season among the top eight pairs to qualify for the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai, have joined the doubles players lawsuit against the ATP.
Erlich said that the top 100 doubles players, with the exception of those who are also ranked in the top 100 in singles, have come together to sue the ATP to stop the "doubles reform" that it is trying to bring into the game.
More about the players Texas-based civil suit against the ATP can be found at www.savedoubles.com.