Tel Aviv Watergen Open tennis event gets underway

Israelis Oliel, Leshem and Cuckierman are given wild cards to Israel’s richest-ever tournament.

 WILD CARD entry Yshai Oliel, Israel's No. 1 men's player will compete in the main draw of the Tel Aviv Watergen Open. (photo credit: ORI LEWIS)
WILD CARD entry Yshai Oliel, Israel's No. 1 men's player will compete in the main draw of the Tel Aviv Watergen Open.
(photo credit: ORI LEWIS)

The Tel Aviv Watergen Open men’s professional tennis tournament begins on Sunday at the Expo Tel Aviv fairgrounds with an initial focus on three Israeli players who have been given a chance to make their mark in the event despite their relatively low world rankings, which would not grant them entry to the event on merit alone.

It is the richest tennis tournament ever to be held in Israel, offering prize money of some $1.2 million.

Former world No. 1 Novak Djokovic – who still has ambitions and an unquestioned ability to recapture the summit of world tennis, but is currently down at No. 15 in the rankings – is the leading attraction at the tournament, which will be played every day until the final next Sunday. He is only expected to move into action later in the week.

Local interest at the outset will involve Israel’s Yshai Oliel, who is world No. 381 and has received a wild card for the main draw that begins on Monday. Two more wild cards have been granted for the qualifying competition to Edan Leshem and Daniel Cuckierman (ranked 421 and 430 respectively). They will begin play on Sunday with the hope that victories will allow them to join their Davis Cup teammate Oliel in the featured part of the competition.

The draw will be held on Sunday at 10:45 a.m., the organizers have announced.

 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 (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 (credit: YVES HERMAN/REUTERS)

Serbian Djokovic, a veritable master of his sport and who is playing for Team Europe at this weekend’s Laver Cup in London, is a household name beyond the realms of tennis and has shone a bright spotlight on the tournament. He is also set to team up in the doubles event with veteran Yoni Erlich, the Israeli Davis Cup captain and player.

The entry list

The entry list for the ATP 250 event includes world No. 16 Marin Cilic of Croatia, who was the 2014 US Open champion and a finalist at Wimbledon in 2017 and the Australian Open in 2018, and Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman (No. 19). Austria’s Dominic Thiem, the 2020 US Open champion who is returning from injury, was the first wild-card entrant announced earlier.

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. Funding waned during the heyday of the expanding tennis circuit in the 1990s, however, and the tournament that was held 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.