Dudi Sela 298.88.
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Two stunning victories in four unbelievable days at Ramat Hasharon last month propelled Dudi Sela from relative anonymity to the front page of the every paper in the country.
His crucial wins against Chile's Fernando Gonzalez and Nicolas Massu in the Davis Cup last month thrilled a nation and helped Israel advance to the World Group of the prestigious competition for the first time in 14 years.
Only a year prior to his breakthrough weekend, however, the 22-year-old was at the lowest point of his fledgling career and was considering retirement.
Sela failed time and again to string together a good run of results and was ranked out of the world's top 300.
He was also struggling financially. To make things even worse, he had also broken his hand.
"I thought about giving up on my career," Sela told The Jerusalem Post Thursday. "I was going through a bad patch, had broken my hand and slipped out of the top 300. I had nothing. I had no sponsor and thought maybe I should retire. I managed, however, to get through this tough time and I'm stronger because of it now."
Sela is currently in the form of his life and is ranked at a career best No. 91 in the world. He has climbed 105 places from his ranking four months ago and is eager to maintain his purple patch for as long as possible.
"I played well on and off in the last three years, but injuries and a failure to close out matches cost me," Sela said. "I wasn't ready mentally. I would give up too easily and wouldn't train hard enough. I've been training harder this year and have been lucky to win matches I should have lost."
"I saved match points in the first and second rounds in the Challenger tournament in Cordoba in July and went on to reach the final," he said. "That gave me confidence and now I feel that I'm improving with every week that passes. The Davis Cup also gave me confidence and faith after I defeated two excellent players."
Sela, who was the third-ranked youth player in the world, found it difficult to make the transition to the senior circuit and spent the early years of his career on the ATP's Challenger and Future circuits.
"It's not easy to play in these events," Israel's new hero said.
"You're living out of a suitcase, going from hotel to hotel and flying four or five times a week. You don't get to see any of the cities you play in because if you lose you must immediately prepare for the next tournament, and if you win you need to get ready for your next match. It's very tough."
Sela was earmarked as Israel's future tennis star from a very young age and has been under intense pressure from the very start of his career.
"The high expectations used to unsettle me," he said. "In Israel everybody expects instant success. But I'm taking things slowly and not setting myself targets I won't be able to reach.
"Only four or five of the top players who I played with in the youth circuit have done very well. I'm 22 years old, 91st in the world and have still got many years ahead of me. I think I'm in a good position."
Sela has spent the last two weeks in Israel training, but will return to the circuit next week in South Korea.
"I'm ending the year with two tournaments in Korea and one in Japan and Taiwan," he said. "These are quite small events, but I can pick up a lot of rankings points in them and I hope to once again display the tennis I've been playing in the last four months and continue to climb up the rankings."
The recent success will put added pressure on Sela ahead of next year, but he refuses to get carried away and has set himself a clear goal.
"I wanted to end this year at No. 120 in the world, but I'm 90 now, so this is a bonus," he said. "I hope to make a big push forward next year and progress as much as possible in the rankings. I hope to finish 2008 at around No. 60 in the world."
The biggest change in Sela as a player this year is his huge hunger to work on his game.
"I need to improve my first serve percentage and must take the ball as early as possible," he said. "Amos Mansdorf was my role model as a child and I think I've got a lot to learn from him."
Despite his recent success on the ATP tour, Sela's achievements might have remained unknown to many had he not almost single-handedly led Israel to the Davis Cup World Group.
"The Davis Cup is your chance to show everyone what you can do," he said. "Family and friends come to see you play and that helps. Playing in Israel is something else; it gives you a lot of confidence and you simply play better."
Israel faces Sweden at Ramat Hasharon in the first round of the World Group in February, and Sela believes the team has a decent chance of advancing to the quarterfinals for the second time in its history.
"I think Sweden is a pretty good draw," he said. "They have strong players, but I believe that if we excel we can defeat them.
"We're a very good team when playing at home. People still come up to me on the street to hug me and congratulate me on the victory against Chile. I enjoy that and I hope it continues."