The Last Word: Maria will add glitz to Israeli golden era

The upcoming Federation Cup clash with Russia is set to capture the nation's attention.

jp.services1 (photo credit:)
jp.services1
(photo credit: )
The achievements of Israel's Federation Cup team over the last 12 months and their impact on Israeli society don't quite compare with those of Tal Brody and Maccabi Tel Aviv in the late 1970s. However, there's little doubt that next weekend's World Group clash with Russia at Ramat Hasharon will capture the attention of the nation, if only for the involvement of tennis's hottest property - Maria Sharapova; and a win would clearly be a success of incredible proportions. In an attempt to emphasize the significance of the tie, Israel Tennis Federation chairman Asaf Chafetz, perhaps unintentionally, evoked memories of Brody's famous reaction after his Tel Aviv team defeated CSKA Moscow on its way to winning the 1979 European basketball cup. "We are on the map," Chafetz stated boldly as he opened a press conference on Thursday publicizing the Fed Cup tie with Russia. To a large extent this is true. Israeli tennis has never been healthier. Last year it was the men's team which grabbed the limelight after Dudi Sela's stunning win over Chile's Fernando Gonzalez won them the tie. And Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich's exploits in Australia this week, where they reached the final of the men's doubles competition, showed that they are back to their devastating best after a difficult 2007. But it is the women who will take center stage come next week, and what a matchup it will be. The prospect of not only Sharapova but fellow Russian superstars Anna Chakvetadze and Dinara Safina visiting these shores in the first Fed Cup tie to be held in Israel for two years will have tennis fans licking their lips. Pe'er is the jewel in the Israeli sports crown. She is the most impressive sports star we have, as shown in her crushing victory in the readers' vote for the Post's Israeli Sports Personality of the Year award last month. She is young and constantly continues to improve and impress. Her absence from the press conference on Thursday was also telling, considering that the other members of the team were present. The ITF must have had relatively low expectations for Pe'er's chances of advancing far into the second week in Melbourne, considering the timing of the press conference. The tenacious 20-year-old was forced to miss the event because she is still in Australia, where she will play in her first grand slam final in the women's doubles on Friday. Underestimating Pe'er's potential will be more of a problem for the Russians than the Israelis, though. She should be a tough opponent for Sharapova next Saturday, but it will be a major upset if the Russian doesn't win. Despite the prospect of a potential whitewash, Chafetz is right to be excited about this year and is also looking to the future in a manner all sports chiefs in Israel should be. Already on Thursday he looked beyond the current crop of locally raised tennis stars, talking about how his organization is "obligated to make use of this period and recruit more young players." Tennis is never going to be the number one sport in Israel, but this is a golden period which is a pleasure to witness.