(photo credit: Associated Press)
Israel's quest for a place in the Davis Cup World Group can take a significant step towards fruition on Friday when Dudi Sela and Noam Okun face Andreas Seppi and Simone Bolelli respectively in the second round of the Europe/Africa Zone Group I at Ramat Hasharon.
The winner of this weekend's tie, which will also see Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich face Daniele Bracciali and Potito Starace in a doubles match on Saturday and two more singles matches between the teams on Sunday, will play in the World Group playoff for a place among the world's top 16 teams.
The Italian's superiority over the hosts is unquestionable and is clearly evident by the fact that they have 10 singles players ranked higher than Israel's best Okun, who is currently ranked 171st in the world.
"The Italians are better than us on paper, but we know all their players very well and that will help us a lot," Okun said on Thursday.
"Our biggest advantage is that we're playing at home and we must make the most of that. However, the fans can't win the game for us and we need to play well to have any chance."
Israel, which last played in the World Group in 1994, has met Italy in the Davis Cup once before, with the Italians defeating the blue-and-white 4-1 in the first round of the World Group in 1988.
Italian captain Corrado Barazzutti chose not to call upon his country's highest ranked player Filippo Volandri (53) for the tie against Israel and has decided to play with the fifth and eighth-ranked Italians.
Barazzutti likely made this decision because Italy's premier players are clay specialists and the coach prefers to use his better hard court players rather than the team's highest ranked individuals.
Despite this, Italy's depth in tennis means that Seppi (91) and Bolelli (111) are still extremely tough opponents. Seppi, who was ranked as high as 51 in February 2005, has won five and lost four of his Davis Cup matches to date and has defeated both Okun and Sela in the past.
"Both teams know how to play good tennis," Seppi said. "The most important thing for us is to play well on the first day. Hopefully we can win both singles matches and get off to a good start."
The 21-year-old Bolelli is currently ranked higher than ever before and will be making his Davis Cup debut in Ramat Hasharon.
Israel captain Eyal Ran has remained positive ahead of the tie. "I believe that if we prepare properly and with the help of the crowd we will win," he said.
"The Italians may be ranked higher than us, but tennis matches are won on the court. Okun and Sela excel in the Davis Cup and are capable of defeating superiorly ranked players."
On Saturday, Ram and Erlich, who are currently ranked seventh in the ATP Doubles Race, will be heavily favored to defeat Bracciali (79) and Starace (89) in the doubles match. Bracciali and Starace have never played a competitive doubles match together, but both participate in doubles tournaments quite frequently and will have nothing to lose on Saturday.
The Canada Stadium in Ramat Hasharon is expected to be almost full and Okun, who will be playing his 28th Davis Cup match on Friday, appeared to be just as excited as if it were his first appearance for his country.
"It's always special to play in front of our home crowd. We are always very proud to represent our country. We rarely get to play in front of the Israeli fans and the Davis Cup weekends in Israel are always amazing."
On TV: Davis Cup: Israel vs. Italy (live on channel 1 at 12 p.m. on Friday and at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday)