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(photo credit: AP)
Noam Okun came through for Israel in the clutch yet again, leading the Davis Cup squad to a crucial win over Great Britain that keeps its spot in Europe/Africa Zone Group I for another year with a thrilling five-set win against Jamie Delgado in the fourth rubber on Sunday at the International Lawn Tennis Center in Eastbourne, England.
Okun rallied from down a break in the fifth for the 6-3, 6-4, 6-7(5), 2-6, 6-3 victory, which was also Israel's first in four tries against the mighty Brits.
"To come here and win on grass was very emotional," non-playing captain Eyal Ran told The Jerusalem Post. "A lot of very good teams lost here and I'm proud that we won."
"I hope this win brought some happiness to people in Israel," he added. With Okun and Yoni Erlich both hailing from Haifa, the situation in the north of Israel was never lost upon the team.
Ran summed up the tie as "historic," and focused on the "team effort." "Even though tennis is an individual sport, this was team effort... When Okun was down in the fifth set, all the players and myself pushed him and he got the job done. That's Davis Cup."
Ran singled out the contributions of every player to the team, including young Amit Inbar, who traveled as a hitting partner, injured Israeli No. 1 Dudi Sela, and former No. 1 Harel Levy, who wasn't called upon this time.
He said the key to it all was Andy Ram's five-set effort against British No. 1 Andy Murray on Friday. Although Ram lost the match, Ran felt that the lengthy encounter, combined with Saturday's doubles, wore Murray down.
The rising Scottish star was forced to skip Sunday's singles with neck and shoulder injuries suffered in the doubles. He turned up Sunday wearing a neck brace, though he eventually removed it during the Okun-Delgado match.
The victory wraps up Israel's season in Davis Cup play. Ran's squad will now wait until October to learn who its next opponent will be in February 2007.
Great Britain next heads to Kiev in September to take on Ukraine in a do-or-die relegation tie for a chance to remain in Europe/Africa Zone Group I. The losing side will fall to Group II.
On Sunday, Okun, who at 270 in the world is ranked 177 spots ahead of Delgado, took charge early. The veteran Israeli controlled the game for the first two-and-a-half sets. However, Delgado turned things around to win the third by tiebreaker and then evened things up by winning the fourth.
"I don't know what happened in the third and fourth [sets]," Okun said. "I went to sleep maybe a little bit."
He credited the unwavering support of Ran and teammates Ram, Erlich and Dekel Valtzer helping him get back.
Okun also had some help from a tiring Delgado, who was playing in the fifth set for the second day in a row. Though he broke Okun in the third game, Delgado committed three unforced errors - including a double fault - as he lost serve in the ensuing game. With the tension building with every point, Okun again raised his level of play and won the next three games to take a commanding 5-2 advantage.
After Delgado held serve, a determined Okun served for the match and was able to clinch victory when Delgado hit a backhand into the net on the second match point.
"It was a crazy match," Okun told the BBC immediately afterwards. "I'm feeling so high, it's hard for me to talk."
On the other side, Delgado, who dropped to 0-6 all-time in the Davis Cup, said "I'm bitterly disappointed. I put everything out there but it wasn't enough in the end... It came down to a few vital points in the middle of the last set which could easily have been mine."
This was only the second time Okun played a five-set singles rubber in the Davis Cup. The other one was quite similar, as he won the first two sets and dropped the third in a tiebreaker before edging South Africa's Marcos Ondruska in the fifth and deciding rubber to propel Israel into Group I.
With the remaining rubber for protocol only, both captains let their No. 4 players have a run, as Alan Mackin defeated Dekel Valtzer 6-2, 6-1. The match was the 21-year-old Valtzer's Davis Cup debut.
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