Is this the way to celebrate a Davis Cup 'sensatsia'?
By STEVE LINDE
In a way, Marat Safin asked for it. Before the Davis Cup tie here last weekend, the former world No. 1 arrogantly remarked that Israel had been "lucky" to beat Sweden and qualify for the quarterfinals.
After losing the doubles match, though, the hot-tempered Russian (he has admitted to breaking 50 rackets a year in fits of rage) sounded decidedly more gracious.
"You [Israel] played well. You had a great doubles team. This is how this sport goes," he said. "We have had some bad losses in the past. That's life, that's sport, that's how it is."
There's no diminishing the historic victory over the Russians at Tel Aviv's Nokia Arena in front of more than 10,000 fans, making Israel one of the top four tennis-playing nations in the world this year. The story was splashed with huge pictures on page one of every newspaper.
There's also no doubt that the partisan fans boosted the Israeli team, with warm applause, loud cheering and even the "wave." In the crucial doubles match, they chanted "AndyYoni" to cheer on the 2008 Australian Open champs Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich, and after it was all over, the players acknowledged that the home crowd had been instrumental in their victory.
"Grand Slam winning is unbelievable but being here in front of 10,000 people, my crowd...," an emotional Erlich told reporters as he paused to take a breath. "This is something I will cherish for all of my life."
"I was confident we could win. It is a dream come true to win... in front of this crowd," added Ram. "I think we deserve it, the crowd deserves it, the country deserved it."
Harel Levy, who exceeded all expectations by beating both Igor Andreev and Igor Kunitsyn in the singles matches, also made a point of thanking the fans for their vocal support.
"This is your 4-1 win," he told the crowd. "This is a lovely feeling because this was a great victory for the whole national team."
There were, however, two things that tainted the victory a little. The first was the rude conduct of some spectators, loudly cheering when the Russian players made errors, and even yelling Russian curses to put them off.
The second was the over-the-top, jingoist commentary on the Sports Channel, which culminated in the duo of ebullient broadcasters rooting for the Israeli players as if they were cheerleaders chanting a battle cry at a Betar Jerusalem soccer match: "Yalla, hevre, yalla!" (Let's go, guys, let's go!)
And when the Israeli team won, they gushed together in a rehearsed epiphany of delight, "Sensatsia!" (Sensation).
At one point during the doubles match, after repeated warnings, the umpire told the raucous spectators that Israel would be penalized if they didn't quiet down. That shut them up for a bit, but not for long.
After it was all over, the Russian media (in what might also be construed as a case of sour grapes) were particularly critical of the Israeli crowd's conduct.
"It was a rude reception. The crowd did not stop interrupting the flow of the game," wrote the Russian newspaper, Sovietsky Sport. "The Russian players were booed in a way reminiscent of the treatment given to the Russian women's team last year."
The paper added, bitingly: "In no place in the world have we encountered behavior such as that of the crowd in Israel. The women's team was given a hostile reception in the provincial Ramat Hasharon, but is this what you would expect at a stadium in the center of Tel Aviv?"
You may recall that Anna Chakvetadze was outraged when Israeli fans wound her up by booing her and calling balls "out" in Ramat Hasharon last year.
"I expected the crowd to be noisy, but not like that," she said. "Maybe they thought they came to a soccer match, but it's tennis. There was no respect for the players. Tennis is not so big here, so many people don't know the rules."
When Maria Sharapova played Tzipi Obziler last year, the rowdy crowd tried to unnerve her off by imitating the grunts she made as she hit the ball.
In that case, though, the smashing Sharapova managed to brush off the gamesmanship of the gallery, using it to her advantage. In fact, she said, it had actually inspired her - and she loved "the craziness of the Israeli fans."
NOT ONLY Israeli fans are rude. American James Blake complained after losing a match to Croatia last weekend that the patriotic people of Porec had gone too far even for a Davis Cup match.
"To boo our fans is something that I find unacceptable, to yell out while I'm serving, to clap when I miss a first serve and things like that on a pretty consistent basis seemed pretty hostile to me," Blake fumed.
In Chile, a wild mob enraged by an umpire's line calls against a Chilean player threw fruit, bottles and plastic chairs onto the court. Argentinean player Mariano Zabeleta's father was injured in the head and required 10 stitches.
As a result, the International Tennis Federation ejected both Argentina and Chile from this year's Davis Cup.
Joel Hunt writes in the on-line magazine Suite10.com that tennis administrators have to tread a fine line between allowing passions of the local crowd to run high but not get out of control.
"It is important that tennis administrators do not look to take away the ability of the crowd to express themselves and to demonstrate their enthusiasm," says Hunt. "But they must find a way to prevent the mob-like behavior of some members of the crowd recently in Chile."
Tennis, like cricket, is known as "a gentleman's sport," and its unwritten etiquette requires spectators to be respectful and not applaud when a player makes a mistake, such as a double fault or unforced error.
According to the USTA Web site, "When in doubt, apply the golden rule: Would you mind if people cheered for a mistake that you just made? If not, then clap and cheer. If so, then refrain from clapping and cheering."
The media, family and school all set the tone for children, who learn what constitutes acceptable behavior. Which is why we should be teaching our kids from the word go that being a good sport means winning and losing with equanimity and treating your rivals with the respect you expect from them.
Cheering their mistakes, shouting curses and throwing objects at them are unacceptable.
Commentators on television and radio should condemn unruly behavior by home crowds, not encourage it. The "Yalla, yalla!" style of commentary only feeds hooliganism.
It's just not cricket (well, tennis in this case), or as sports commentator Yoram Arbel once famously remarked during a soccer match, "Kacha lo bonim homa!" Literally meaning "You don't build a wall like that," it has become a Hebrew catchphrase for the English expression, "That's not cricket!" or "That's not the way things should be done."
Now that Israel has established itself as being "on the map" in tennis, as basketball legend Tal Brody once put it, let's hope we stay there for the right reasons (such as winning graciously all the way to the top) and not the wrong ones (such as establishing a bad name for ourselves as rude hosts who can even put the remarkable Russians off their game).
Unfortunately for Israel, its Davis Cup semifinal against Spain will be an away match. The task before the Israeli team is formidable, with all four Spanish players graded above even the high ranking of 30 that Israel's top player, Dudi Sela, now enjoys.
It is worthy of note that the Israeli media have mostly ignored the fact that the match is scheduled to take place on Rosh Hashana. There was a time when Jews and Israel made a big deal of abstaining from sport on the High Holy Days. Playing on the Jewish New Year doesn't seem right for representatives of the Jewish state.
Or does that, too, not matter anymore?
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