Growing from love

Israel's recent Davis Cup match win over Great Britain highlights the evolution of the national tennis team.

tennis feat 88 298 (photo credit: AP)
tennis feat 88 298
(photo credit: AP)
Just two weeks after the biggest win of his Davis Cup career, Israel captain Eyal Ran is already planning for the future. Israel won't learn its next opponent in Europe/Africa Zone Group I until October and won't take the court again till February at the earliest, but Ran's focus isn't just on how to improve his squad, rather on how to build for the next generation. Ran, 33, is a veteran of 10 years on the professional circuit. Before retiring in 2001, he'd gone up against a host of former top 10 players including Stefan Edberg, Patrick Rafter, David Nalbandian, Tim Henman, Albert Costa and Jonas Bjorkman. Ran also played 15 matches for Israel's Davis Cup team. Now he's looking to use the experience he's amassed during his career for the betterment of Israeli tennis. Ran is aware of the limitations - financial and otherwise - that stand in the way of any plans of grandeur. If money wasn't an issue, he would be campaigning for more professional tournaments in Israel - at least two $10,000 future level events and two $25,000 challengers, to start with. Ran would look to help Israel's top players by having the Israel Tennis Association pick up the tab so they can travel full-time with their coaches and have more access to conditioning trainers, physical therapists and doctors when away from home. "I'm a little prejudiced, but I think it would make the difference," Ran says of the idea. However, back in the real world, Ran adopts the motto of baby steps, "taking it one step at a time." Ran is proposing to create a new framework under the current Davis Cup setup, a "junior Davis Cup" team as he calls it, to link the top 17- and 18-year-olds with the players who represent Israel today. Ran, himself part of a similar project when he was an emerging teenager, now sees the positive impact for the older players as well. "It will help the older generation to have players looking up to them and it will be the start of the next generation," Ran explains, "so that they train and see the national team and build a connection." THERE IS only one main hurdle Ran sees before hopefully putting the project into place by September, the next time Israel's Davis Cup team is scheduled to meet - cooperation between the two main tennis bodies in Israel, the Israel Tennis Association (ITA) and the Israel Tennis Center (ITC). There has been a long-standing breakdown in relations between the ITA, which among other things is responsible for Israel's Davis and Fed Cup teams and the running of any International Tennis Federation sanctioned tournaments, and the ITC, which has built 14 tennis centers throughout the country and developed programs to bring children closer to the game. Ran has already suggested his idea to the top coaches at each program, the ITA's Oded Jacob, himself a former Davis Cup captain, and Ronen Morali, the current coach with the Davis Cup side. Ran says both have endorsed the idea, which would call for four or five players to join the regular side for training whenever they get together and perhaps another two times a year. Ran says he believes that with Jacob and Morali - both former coaches of Ran's - aboard, it won't be difficult to get the "ok" of ITA chairman Asaf Hefetz and ITC CEO Janine Strauss. "The goal here is professional... There are few players that can make the Israeli Davis Cup team and play. It's great fun for those that do," Ran says. "It'll be great if we can have a larger squad and junior Davis Cup, expose more players to the atmosphere. And when we play ties at home, they can sit near the players, cheer and gain exposure." While to many the idea of having younger players tag along or hit balls with their elders may sound trivial, Ran has witnessed those benefits first hand. For the recent Davis Cup match against Great Britain in Eastbourne, England, an injury to singles player Dudi Sela combined with former Israeli No. 1 Harel Levy's decision not to compete on grass opened up a fourth spot on the squad. Ran gave it to 21-year-old Dekel Valtzer, who had never before played Davis Cup or at an ATP Tour event. "This was Dekel's first time on grass. So it helped him to learn the surface," Ran says. "He trained like and with pros for two weeks. So he got to see how they work and act at the highest levels. And he learned how to behave on the court between points. How to breathe, pause, when to go to the towel. I saw a change during the match, it wasn't the same Dekel that I had known." Ran says the more younger players have that opportunity to observe guys like Andy Ram, Yoni Erlich and Noam Okun on the court, the more it will impact their development. Ran also says he hopes we will continue to see more young players taking an interest in the sport. THE RECENT boom in interest, sparked by Shahar Pe'er's run at the French Open, Andy Ram's mixed doubles title at Wimbledon and the Davis Cup victory in England, could see more young players than ever trying to pursue tennis dreams. "I think we'll see the fruits in a few years," Ran says. One reason for his optimism is improved scouting strategies in all sports. "Now they've started to scout out young players," which Ran says is becoming essential in his sport. "It's very important to find talented players when they're young, because tennis requires hard work to develop skills and there isn't instant gratification. In soccer, you throw out a ball and everyone runs around and kicks and has fun." So what do the professionals look for when scouting children? "Hand-eye coordination is the most important key, as well as reaction time, and they have other tests that they do with the kids." Ran gives both leading tennis bodies credit for their part. "I imagine that the ITA and ITC are making the needed adjustments to make the game more fun to start with for children." As important as it is to prepare the next generation, Ran also maintains that everything must be done to keep today's top players going strong. "It's very important to give support to a player like Noam Okun. If he says 'Guys, this is hard. I don't know if I can travel as much,' etc., it'll hurt you [the team] now and it'll hurt in the future... I think in the ITA they get that." Ran says he has complete confidence in his players and their abilities. "Andy and Yoni are one of the top 10 pairs in the world. Ninety-five percent of the games they play they're favorites, and in my opinion they are favorites against any team when they play here in Israel. "Noam is one of the players who has shown the most improvement in the Davis Cup. When he first started he had trouble, but now he's a bigger pleasant surprise every time out. "I don't need to say anything about Harel Levy. I think that this summer could be the difference for him," Ran continues. "Dudi is just starting out and has had one good game and one bad one... He kind of reminds me of Noam Okun in that respect. It's not easy at age 21 to step in and be the top player." So how far can Ran and his core group of five players go? "To be realistic, [Europe/Africa Zone] Group I is our level... For us to get close to the World Group, we'll need to beat a team that is better than us on paper. "I want to win the first tie of the year and then we'll be pressure free. And maybe then if we go up against bigger teams as an underdog, maybe we can surprise." What is Davis Cup? Though tennis is essentially an individual sport, the International Tennis Federation sanctions two main annual competitions for national teams - the Davis Cup for men and the Fed Cup for women. Every competing nation has a chance to play in its geographical zone, from where it can advance to the world group and eventually earn a shot to play for the world title. Correspondingly, defeat can see teams fall down the ladder and into lower group levels in their respective zones. At the higher levels, teams play best-of-five-match ties, with four singles and one doubles game. Having finished their 2006 campaigns, Israel's Davis Cup team is ranked 35th and will begin 2007 in Europe/Africa Zone Group I, while the Fed Cup team is ranked 15th and starts next season at World Group II. Israel uses 'baby steps' Israel's Davis Cup win over Great Britain two weeks ago on the grass courts at Eastbourne, England, is among the biggest in Israeli tennis history. Team captain Eyal Ran explains how his team used "baby steps" to rise to the occasion. With injuries mounting, Ran decided to play Andy Ram, one of the best doubles players in the world and a specialist on grass, in both the singles and the doubles. "Andy was expected to have a lot of physical and mental pressure on him," Ran says. Ram told his captain something he learned from one of his coaches, former Canadian team captain Louis Cayer. "[Cayer] worked in the past with Daniel Nestor, a Canadian Davis Cup player that played singles and doubles. He would tell him 'Don't think about the singles and doubles and then singles again on the third day. Take baby steps. Take it one step at a time... one point at a time, one game at a time...' "Andy told me about the idea and I said 'Let's adopt it for all of us.' And it helped. Players could be under tremendous pressure to perform and we could stop and say 'baby steps, one point at a time.'"