Djokovic, Schwartzman, Cilic, Kachanov lead entrants to Tel Aviv Watergen Open

Davis Cup tie against Czech Republic to precede return of ATP tournament to Holy Land after 26-year hiatus

 NOVAK DJOKOVIC (left), the 35-year-old 21-time Grand Slam champion from Serbia, and Jewish-Argentine Diego Schwartzman will be coming to Israel this month to take part in the ATP 250 Tel Aviv Watergen Open (photo credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)
NOVAK DJOKOVIC (left), the 35-year-old 21-time Grand Slam champion from Serbia, and Jewish-Argentine Diego Schwartzman will be coming to Israel this month to take part in the ATP 250 Tel Aviv Watergen Open
(photo credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)

Former world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who still has ambitions and an undoubted ability to recapture the summit of world tennis, is the leading entrant to the Tel Aviv Watergen Open men’s professional tournament that will be held from September 25-October 2 at Expo Tel Aviv.

Djokovic, a veritable master of his sport, is a household name beyond the realms of tennis and he has shone a bright spotlight on the tournament, which is certainly going to feature heavily in the news when it gets under way at the end of this month.

The entry list to the ATP 250 event, the richest tennis tournament ever to be held in Israel, was finalized on Wednesday and includes Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman (No. 16 in the world rankings), Marin Cilic of Croatia, the 2014 US Open champion and finalist at Wimbledon in 2017 and the Australian Open in 2018, at No. 17, Dutchman Botic van der Zandschulp (22) and big-serving Russian Karen Kachanov (31), who on Wednesday defeated Australian Nick Kyrgios in New York to reach the semifinals of the last Grand Slam of the year.

Austria’s Dominic Thiem, the 2020 US Open champion, was the first of three wild-card entrants and was announced last month. Two other wild card places are being kept open until later to allow leading players to enter, should they decide at the last minute that they want to play, a senior tournament official said at a news conference on Tuesday.

“There are probably going to be two wild cards and when we are ready, we will make our announcement,” said Viktor Chernov, who is heading the organizing team.

ARGENTINE JEW Diego Schwartzman battled hard against Rafael Nadal in the US Open (credit: REUTERS)ARGENTINE JEW Diego Schwartzman battled hard against Rafael Nadal in the US Open (credit: REUTERS)

He would not be drawn on any particular name of a leading player that might want to enter the fray, but said he hoped fans would be kept in suspense and that there might be “interesting” news to announce later.

Tickets will go on sale on September 12 on the tournament website (tawo.co.il) with prices starting from about NIS 100 per day, the organizers said. The indoor venue will be able to host some 2,500 spectators on each of the eight days of play on two show courts.

The venue must also offer two practice courts for the players at the Tel Aviv Expo hall, the only indoor arena in the country large enough to accommodate four courts.

The event will offer prize money of close to $1.2 million. A high-caliber men’s pro tennis event was last held in Israel in 1996. That tournament was inaugurated in 1978 and was held yearly, except in 1982, but funding waned during the heyday of the expanding tennis circuit in the 1990s and the tournament at the Israel Tennis Center in Ramat Hasharon was axed.

The new tournament is back in Tel Aviv 26 years later thanks to an opening in the calendar created through the cancellation of the Zhuhai Championships ATP 250 event in China because of COVID-19. Major funding by Watergen and its owner, entrepreneur Mikhael Mirilashvili, has brought the event to Tel Aviv.

“This is the first time after 26 years, so we must do everything 100%, and if we do, we hope that there will be good news [for the future],” Chernov said when the tournament was first announced last month.

He added that “this is an opportunity for Tel Aviv to become a new part of the global tennis season. There is going to be an amazing fan zone experience at the event.”

On Tuesday, the organizers said that they hoped to be able to upgrade the tournament to an ATP 500 event that would attract the top names in men’s tennis, although no details have yet been announced.

Davis Cup: Israel keeps faith with same team to face Czechs

In the weekend preceding the tournament, on September 16-17, Israel will host the Czech Republic in their Davis Cup encounter. It will be held at the Shlomo Group Arena across the road from the Tel Aviv Expo complex.

Israel captain, Yoni Erlich, who is also set to play doubles, has named the same lineup to the one that beat South Africa in Ashdod in February, but the hosts are clear underdogs against the Czechs, who have won the competition on three occasions – in 1980, 2012 and 2013.

Israel’s best-ever showing was a semifinal appearance in 2009.

Yshai Oliel, ranked at No. 355, is named as Israel’s No. 1 singles player, Daniel Cukierman (457) is next best-ranked, Edan Leshem (470) is third and 21-year-old newcomer Sahar Simon is the fifth member of the team.

Erlich’s doubles ranking is currently 164th and he and Cukierman have had success in recent ties.

Nevertheless, with Jiri Lehecka ranked at 61st, alongside Tomas Machac (126), Zdenek Kolar (149) and Dalibor Svrcina (222), the Israelis will have their work cut out for them.

Anything but a win for the visitors would be a huge surprise, although Israel has a long and storied history of causing major upsets in Davis Cup.