Israelis are playing college tennis and trying to make it in the US

It is a well-kept secret that most tennis players – Israeli or otherwise – will never be able to support themselves playing professional tennis.

 LERA PATIUK played at University of Michigan.  (photo credit: University of Michigan Athletics)
LERA PATIUK played at University of Michigan.
(photo credit: University of Michigan Athletics)

In many ways, Israeli tennis player Daniel Cukierman is one of the lucky ones – he has a Plan B. If things don’t work out playing professional tennis, he can rely on his real estate degree from an American university to make a living. Chances are, he will need it. 

It is a well-kept secret that most tennis players – Israeli or otherwise – will never be able to support themselves playing professional tennis. For tennis fans who will soon be swept up in the excitement of the French Open (starting May 22), followed by Wimbledon (July) and the US Open (late August), this is a sad reality that most professional players and fans have not considered. And for good reason. The glamour and prize money earned by the Rafas (Nadal) and Serenas (Williams) often take center court and overshadow the plight of lower-ranked professional players.

Consider this: The French Tennis Federation will hand out $46 million in the upcoming French Open, with the male and female champion each earning $2.3m. Serena Williams, 40, earned $45.9m. in 2021, and Roger Federer, through prize money and endorsements, was the No. 8 highest-paid athlete in 2019, making $93.4m., while Novak Djokovic came in No. 17, with a total of $50.6m. Over the course of their careers, Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have taken in more than $125m. each in prize money.

A handful of Israelis have been able to earn a living playing professional tennis. Shahar Pe’er, now 35, retired in 2017 after 13 years playing professional tennis. At one time, she was No. 11 in the world in the singles ranking – the highest of any Israeli tennis player in history. Peer earned $5,148,411 over the course of her career.

Dudi Sela, 37, reached a singles ranking of 29. In his 18-year pro career, he earned $3,935,113. 

 DANIEL CUKIERMAN playing for Israel’s Davis Cup Team. (credit: Israel Tennis Federation) DANIEL CUKIERMAN playing for Israel’s Davis Cup Team. (credit: Israel Tennis Federation)

The famous doubles team of Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich dissolved in 2014 when Ram, now 42, retired. He earned $2,647,616 over the course of his 18-year professional career. Erlich, 45, is still at it. He and Ram reached a world No. 5 doubles ranking. Erlich is entering his 26th professional season and to date has earned $2,810,794.

Recently retired Julia Glushko, who reached No. 79 in the world over the course of her 15-year pro career, earned $998,044.

While these earnings may sound impressive, players incur extraordinary ongoing costs. Unlike in team sports where travel, lodging and food costs are absorbed by the team, tennis players are essentially “independent contractors” and can incur costs anywhere from $40,000-$100,000 a year if they “go it alone,” traveling without coaches or trainers, or up $150,000 to $200,000 if they field a full support team.

Some of the less lucky Israelis who played on the pro tour include Amir Weintraub. Weintraub, who reached a career high of No. 161 over his 15-year career, has been outspoken on just how difficult it is to earn a living for a player not in the top 100. In a 2013 post on titled, “Waiting For an Offer from the Bundesliga,” he wrote, referring to the top-flight German soccer league: “If you’re not a top-100 tennis player, you’re doomed. Financially speaking, it will take you a few years to see that you are broke, you’ve spent all of your parents’ money and you’ll ask yourself why you haven’t pursued a football career instead.” 

In a 2016 Facebook post he added, “The bottom line is we the players outside the first 100 are pawns for the top-ranked players and we are disposable, as simple as that… To be a tennis player is a financial loss, period. If you are not in the top 100 you lose no matter how you roll it.” 

Even with such dire predictions, young Israelis – and players around the world – are working to realize their dreams by giving it a go on the professional tour. Yishai Oliel, 22, is one example. He is currently ranked 336 and has earned only $76,416 thus far in his five years as a professional player.

Others are rediscovering an option that can pay dividends down the road. They are following University of Southern California tennis standout Cukierman’s “Plan B,” choosing to play tennis at an American university. In the process, they hone their tennis game and often receive a free college education, while still leaving open the option to play professionally. 

According to Israeli tennis legend Ram, Israelis playing tennis at American colleges is not a new phenomenon. “We’ve had hundreds of Israelis who have graduated from US colleges so far,” says Ram, who currently serves as director of high performance for Israel Tennis & Education Centers (ITEC). He stresses the importance of a good education for tennis players and notes that he always heard this message growing up and continues to deliver this message to aspiring tennis players. “All of my life, my parents said, ‘You are a student, then you are a tennis player. Education is before tennis!” 

NOAM YITZHAKI, global relations manager for ITEC, started playing tennis at age eight in Kiryat Shmona to “stay away from rockets” being launched on his northern childhood town. He reached the rank of 1,008 in the world in 2008 and feels tennis “changed my life, taught skills and values and opened doors.” Yitzhaki, who recently received his master’s degree in exercise physiology from the University of South Florida, is a big fan of Israelis considering the option of playing college tennis – and talks it up with young players. “One of the most significant opportunities Israeli kids receive is the opportunity to play NCAA college tennis,” he says, referring to the major governing body for American intercollegiate sports. 

 NOAM YITZHAKI, former pro player, works for Israel Tennis & Education Centers.  (credit: Yoni Yair/ITEC) NOAM YITZHAKI, former pro player, works for Israel Tennis & Education Centers. (credit: Yoni Yair/ITEC)

Ram did not play college tennis, but he almost had to pursue his college studies back in Israel earlier than expected. “My career was almost finished at 22. I recovered from two surgeries and was lucky – I came back.” As soon as Ram retired from professional tennis, he pursued his bachelor’s degree and will soon complete his MBA; he currently owns a chain of ice cream stores throughout the country. 

Ram understands the desire to follow one’s dreams of playing professional tennis. “We give players the opportunity to be world champs. Do it. It is priceless!” At the same time, he acknowledges that it is expensive and that most will not become world champions. Ram offers an important insight that seems to sum up the experience for most currently playing tennis and studying hard at US universities. “Tennis is a great vehicle for life. Most won’t make a living with tennis, but through tennis.” Their tennis skills will open all kinds of doors and opportunities. 

Many attending US colleges are already seeing results – despite challenges they have endured in the process.

DANIEL DUDOCKIN will always love tennis – even after he completes his bachelor’s degree in economics and finance and his master’s degree in finance at the University of Nevada, Reno this June – and hopefully lands a lucrative financial services job. “I love tennis. It gave me a lot. But I’m not going to try to go pro.” He hopes to begin his career in finance in the United States and maybe one day return to Israel. 

Dudockin initially learned that attending college in the US might be a viable alternative while serving in the IDF as a mitstayen sport (sports standout). “I evaluated myself objectively. I know that if I was [ranked] 200-300 in the world, it would be very hard to make a living. I heard from Julia [Glushko] and Amir [Weintraub] how they lived. It was not a good way to live financially.”

Once Dudockin decided that tennis at an American university might be an option, he needed assistance with the process. “A consultant helped me find the best fit of weather and culture, taught me how to speak to American coaches, and he explained how to draft a letter and make a nice video.” Dudockin also had to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and the SAT (college admission test). He sent emails to 250 coaches and waited for offers. 

Once enrolled at the University of Nevada, Dudockin faced additional academic challenges. He had writing tutors to help with essays. “The more I went, the more I understood my grammar mistakes,” Dudockin adds. “My English was good compared to Israelis but it was not good enough. I had to work twice as hard as many other students.”

Socially, Dudockin mainly connected with other international athletes. In his senior year, he recruited another Israeli tennis player, Gilad Tamar, to join the team. That same year, a Chabad House opened on campus. “It was really fun. I went for Shabbat dinner every weekend I was here, and I went for Passover. There were students who spoke Hebrew and [Chabad] Rabbi Dani [Libersohn] too!”

ADI BEN ARI, a junior honor roll biomedical engineering student at Binghamton University in New York, has also found Chabad and the Jewish community on campus to be supportive. He is appreciative that a tennis coach in Israel suggested he consider playing tennis at an American university. While he had help with the process and needed to take the SATs and submit videos of his playing, the fact that he was a US citizen made the process a bit easier. “Binghamton was a good fit academically and for tennis. I finished my army service in July 2019 and started college in the fall of 2019.” 

Ben-Ari faced challenges such as being older than most students and having “a different mindset.” He was also far from home, taking classes in English and navigating college during the pandemic. “We had to leave the dorms [during COVID] and I had to go to an aunt’s home in Massachusetts. They drove down, moved me out and took me in.” He spent two months there, taking online classes. 

Ben-Ari has enjoyed playing college tennis but is especially focused on his academic career. He hopes to intern for a biomedical device company in Israel this summer and will return to Israel after graduating.

LERA PATIUK always thought she’d make it as a professional tennis player and looked down on those who considered playing college tennis. “When I was a junior, I saw college as a sign that you are not good enough to go pro,” Patiuk says. “College was a Plan B.” Then, at age 16, after losing several matches in a row, she began to have doubts. Patiuk spoke with her coach, Asaf Yamin. “He said, give it a chance for two or three years. You can go to college and not go pro – or you can quit tennis.” 

Nonetheless, Patiuk continued to dream of a pro career. “College was never an option for me.” She nonetheless continued to receive offers for full college scholarships. “I was never interested. I never even replied.” Then, Yamin moved to the US to pursue a job as director of international operations at Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park, Maryland. “I was 19. I was asking, ‘What am I going to do with my life? I am barely winning matches. I feel trapped.’ I was trying to figure it out. I decided I wanted to go to college – without knowing what it means.” 

She started looking back at old emails from college coaches – some were four or five years old. “Some coaches didn’t reply, others did. I didn’t care about academics at the time. I just wanted to get better and get back on tour.” Then, Patiuk got her lucky break. “The coach at the University of Michigan was happy to hear from me.” Two other schools also pursued her. “I visited Michigan in September 2016, told them I would come, and played in the 2017 season.” 

Patiuk says she was “injured a lot that first season” and was “not in the right shape.” Her second year was even more difficult. “Everything went downhill. I got pressure from coaches and the team who only wanted to see W’s [wins].” 

While Patiuk experienced cultural differences with the American students and felt she “couldn’t blend in,” she made friends with her teammates and with other Israelis on campus – including Israeli athletes. She also received a great education, albeit with some struggles studying in English. “My first year, I had to translate every word using Google Translate.” Yet she acknowledges, “There were lots of benefits, like a free degree.”

Former coach Yamin remembers the advice he offered Patiuk when she was reluctant to consider college. “I told her, ‘going to college is not a failure. You can get something in return for tennis.” Yamin says that “One percent of 18-year-olds globally are ready to go pro.” He encouraged Patiuk to consider college while leaving the door open on a pro career if that was what she desired. “If you go to a good school, and play in a good conference and the level is good, and you want to go pro, then you can.” 

The idea of playing professional tennis – or staying in the US – is far from Patiuk’s mind. She studied molecular biology, and couldn’t wait to return to Israel upon graduation. She worked at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, and is now considering graduate school in Israel. She now works as a clinical data manager.

LIKE PATIUK, Bar Botzer never took emails from US college coaches very seriously – at first. He was too busy experiencing tennis success, which included being in the top 30 in the world for juniors and playing for Israel’s Davis Cup team. As he was completing his IDF service, Botzer felt he had the potential to be successful playing tennis. “But I couldn’t afford it,” he says. He calculated the costs of coaching, fitness and other expenses. “The way I was doing things, I wouldn’t be successful. And I had no money in the bank.”

During lunch with a friend one day, Botzer began thinking about the college option. “You need to try it,” my friend said. “I took the SATs and I spoke to Daniel Cukierman. I saw he was being recruited. I spoke with a few schools and had some initial problems with eligibility. I was all set to attend IDC [now called Reichman University]. The coach at Wake Forest [University, in North Carolina,] persisted in getting me eligible. He called and said, ‘We will bring you.” 

Botzer went on to have a very successful tennis and academic career at Wake Forest, and benefited from an additional year of eligibility afforded athletes due to the pandemic. “We won the ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference] and NCAA my first year. It was the best tennis moment of my life.” At Wake Forest, Botzer was named to the All-Tournament Team at the NCAA Championship and the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) National Team Indoor Championship, he won the clinching match at the ACC Championship, and he became only the ninth player in program history to garner All-America honors in singles, as he advanced to the Round of 16 at the NCAA Singles Championship before withdrawing due to injury.

Botzer loved the facilities at Wake Forest and says the coaches were unbelievable. He enjoyed attending Hillel on campus, but notes “everyone was 18 [years old] – American 18 and not Israeli 18!” He found that most students on campus had “different priorities and different things on their minds.” Botzer opted to stay focused on his grades. 

Botzer used his tennis connections to land a summer job in New Jersey, finished school early and started his MBA at the prestigious Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. He continued to play tennis as a graduate student, even competing against his old school, Wake Forest. “We will have some awkward moments,” Botzer said playfully before the start of the season. 

Botzer has received an excellent education and feels his tennis game has improved as a result of his college playing years. He says that in Israel, “people think that if you go to college, you are giving up on tennis. That is not true. You see so many people like Brandon Nakashima [attended University of Virginia, now No. 80 in the world] and Jenson Tyler ‘J. T.’ Brooksby [Baylor University, current No. 43] who went to college and play pro.” 

While Botzer will not pursue a professional career, he continues to love tennis and says, “I will play tennis until I am 70.” Botzer has managed to earn $28,548 in his pro career to date – pocket change compared to the expected starting salary for a graduate of a US business school.

Meanwhile, Cukierman continues to enjoy the best of both worlds. Cukierman just finished his fourth year at USC, where he had a stellar career. During his junior year, he was ranked No. 1 in the US in singles among men’s college tennis players in the ITA Division I Men’s Individual National Rankings. While Cukierman, like most Israeli tennis players, found the culture and social scene at college to be different than what he was used to in Israel, he enjoyed the support of his teammates. “The team was like a family to me,” says Cukierman, who has always enjoyed being part of a team. “I prefer to play as part of a team, like with the Davis Cup in Israel.” 

Cukierman studied real estate development and feels it will serve him well now and in the future. “It is something I can do while playing tennis. It is a good option.” Cukierman, who has a career-high ATP doubles ranking of 424 and career earnings (singles and doubles) of $47,903, is on the road competing this summer. “It is not easy to succeed,” reports Cukierman,” but I will give 100%.” Thus far in May, he has already played three tournaments – two in Buenos Aires, Argentina and one in Montenegro. Win or lose, he has his USC degree and networks to help assure future success.

While tennis continues to be a useful tool for an increasing number of Israelis – regardless of whether they pursue professional careers – Andy Ram sees an additional benefit to Israelis playing college tennis in the United States. “If they play well and are good students, they represent Israel well at their colleges. Our kids are our ambassadors.” Good hasbara (public diplomacy) for Israel goes a long way these days.■