Amos Mansdorf tried his best to remain upbeat.
Israel’s greatest tennis player ever honestly believes the country’s Fed Cup team under his guidance is capable of climbing out of Europe/Africa Zone Group I this week and returning to World Group II for the first time since 2009.
But for all his optimism, even Mansdorf struggled to remain positive when addressing the future of the women’s game in Israel.
“I haven’t been pleased with what I’ve seen from our young women in recent months,” Mansdorf told The Jerusalem Post
“There is a lot of work which needs to be done. An overhaul is required.”
The 48-year-old, whose career-high singles ranking of No. 18 in the world – achieved in 1987 – remains the highest ever for any Israeli male player, did at least have some encouraging words to say about the outlook for the country’s male pretenders.
“We have a pretty good group of young men,” he claimed. “I believe that in three to five years they will be ready to play in the Davis Cup.”
First things first, however, as Mansdorf looks to lead Shahar Pe’er, as well as Julia Glushko, Keren Shlomo and Ofri Lankri, to the World Group II playoffs over the next five days in Budapest, Hungary.
The last name listed above is probably not all that familiar even to those who follow Israeli tennis closely, but Lankri’s story perhaps best epitomizes the current state of the women’s game.
The 22-year-old Lankri, who reached a career-high of No. 545 in the WTA rankings in June 2012, retired almost two years ago. She focused instead on coaching, but decided to enter the Israel national championships for fun in December and ended up reaching the final.
Lankri, the daughter of Acre mayor Shimon Lankri, won four matches in the qualifiers and three in the tournament itself, including a victory over Shlomo in the semifinals.
She also put up a strong showing in a 7-6, 6-2 defeat to Glushko in the final (Pe’er didn’t take part in the tournament).
Mansdorf was impressed by Lankri – who had retired due to financial issues – and having few other options, elected to call her up to the national squad.
“Ofri is a lot better than the younger girls and that was clear for all to see at the national championships,” he said. “The timeout she took from tennis for almost two years helped her relax and she is playing very well in training.”
Mansdorf hopes that Lankri, who has never played in the Fed Cup before, can follow in the footsteps of Tzipi Obziler, who came out of a two-year retirement at the age of 26 and went on to reach a ranking of No. 75 and play a key role in helping Israel advance to the World Group in 2008.
“I’m not sure what her plans are for the future. She is still only 22 and we need to remember that Tzipi restarted her career at the age of 26 and ended up having a very good career,” he said.
Lankri isn’t expected to play a significant role, if any at all, in Budapest in the coming days, with Pe’er and Glushko to shoulder the burden in the singles and doubles.
Israel will open its Pool C ties against Ukraine on Wednesday, before facing Austria on Thursday and Slovenia on Saturday.
Despite her continued struggles, Mansdorf believes Pe’er will soon find her way and feels that Glushko mainly lacks consistency.
“Shahar is on the right track,” explained Mansdorf, who after captaining the Davis Cup team between 2000 and 2004 worked in the diamond business before returning to full-time coaching in the past two years.
“She’s a pro. Coping with injuries is part of any career. These aren’t very bad injuries, but they are annoying. She will overcome them soon and will be back to her best.”
Mansdorf also had praise for Glushko.
“Julia plays at a very high level, top 100 and even better. She just needs to maintain this level every week. She dropped some close matches and needs to learn how to win these encounters in order to reach the next level.”
Considering Pe’er and Glushko couldn’t lift the team out of Zone Group I when the matches were played in Eilat for the last three years, it is hard to see them doing so in Hungary this week.
Mansdorf believes that the size of its population and the low number of active players are two of the main reasons Israel struggles to breed more top talent. However, he also admits that not enough is being done from a financial and coaching standpoint.
There should be no shame if Israel fails to reach the World Group II playoffs; in fact, it will be an unexpected triumph should the side somehow manage to do so.
Far more worrying, however, is the prospect that in the not-so-distant future, Israel’s Fed Cup team will look back at its time in Group I as the good old days, when it is clear that they could hardly qualify as glamorous even as they are transpiring.