At age 28, Amir Hadad is finally ready to break through

TENNIS: Amir Hadad has accomplished enough in his tennis career to fill the resumes of many professional players.

amir hadad tennis 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
amir hadad tennis 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
Amir Hadad has accomplished enough in his tennis career to fill the resumes of many professional players. He's matched up against fierce competitors, like the former top 10 Frenchman Cedric Piolone at home in the Davis Cup; defeated Australian star Mark Philippoussis; been to the second round at a Grand Slam; and appeared on the front page of The New York Times for his partnership with Pakistani Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi in the doubles event at Wimbledon in 2003. But now, at the ripe tennis age 28, Hadad feels the best is about to come. In Israel for a pair of minor tournaments, Hadad on Saturday defeated Dekel Valtzer 6-4, 6-3 in the final of the Joyce Eisenberg Futures at Ramat Hasharon. The three-time Israeli champ will compete in another event in Ra'anana this week, in which Israeli doubles star Andy Ram will also compete, but does not plan to play in the final tournament the following week in Haifa. Last week, Hadad took time to discuss his game with The Jerusalem Post. AFTER FIVE injury-plagued years, Hadad is healthy, experienced, determined and perhaps most importantly - backed financially and able to travel to tournaments with new coach Shimon Rapaport, thanks to the generosity of friend and sponsor Dudu Baron. Hadad believes that having Rapaport with him full-time "could be the difference between being ranked 200 and 100 in the world." He says he's never been lazy, but admits that in the past he's had a problem with self discipline while traveling. "I'm 10-15 kilograms overweight. When I lose that weight and can get around the court like other players, I'll be much better," he says. "I don't have a problem working hard, but I need a coach with me to push me harder." Another important development according to Hadad is his settling down. Originally from Ramle, he now lives in Budapest, Hungary, with his wife of two-and-a-half years, Sunny, and their daughter Noa. Hadad is taking a more settled approach to his decisions about competing as well. With a career riddled by knee and hand injuries, which have caused Hadad to spend almost as much in rehab from his three surgeries as on the court, he now thinks twice before entering competitions. With only three or so more years of competitive tennis left in him, Hadad must carefully choose which tournaments are the best opportunities for him to earn money and valuable rankings points. At the same time, while he says that he tries not to let his family impact on his decisions about where to play and how long to be away for, he admits that "it's hard, especially now when [Noa] is already starting to talk and understand." CURRENTLY RANKED 237th in the world by the ATP, Hadad's next professional goal is to crack the top 200 - "or even better"- sometime this year. His career best ranking was 180 in April 2003, shortly after winning the Ho Chi Ming Challenger in Vietnam. Over the past year he has climbed nearly 900 spots in the rankings after a five-month injury lay-off saw him fall to 1,119 in March 2005. "My hand will never be as strong as it once was, that's for sure," Hadad says. He tore a major tendon and then returned to action too early, aggravating the injury and eventually needing a second operation. But Hadad feels he is nevertheless a better player than he was five years ago. He now knows how to treat his body. "I need a longer warm-up [before matches] and to always be aware of how [my hand] feels. Some people think I don't play often enough, but I prefer to skip a tournament if I don't feel right rather than push through and risk further injury. It's better to miss a week or two than nine months." HADAD'S CROWNING achievement to date was a third-round doubles appearance with Qureshi at Wimbledon in 2003. The two played only five tournaments together, but the resoundingly positive press for the Israeli/Pakistani duo helped earn them the 2003 Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award for their "messages of peace and tolerance." "It wasn't even a sports story," he recalls. "We were on the front page of The New York Times - the news page! We were on CNN. It was [unbelievable]." Hadad compliments Qureshi for the courage that he displayed by choosing to compete with him. "When he was threatened [by the Pakistan Tennis Federation] that they'd throw him out, he said 'it doesn't matter, I'm playing.' " Despite the fact that he is best known for his doubles play, Hadad has decided to focus on his singles game, as part of his plan for resurrecting his career. In fact, it's this focus - plus his hand injury - that led the Israeli-Pakistani duo to end their tennis partnership, and not politics, as some have insinuated. "I just saw him recently," Hadad says. "We're still friends." As for his single career, on the few occasions that Hadad has reached the main draw at an ATP Tour event, he has almost always won his first match. "It's part good tennis and part luck," he says. "[Last year] in Beijing, I beat Dick Norman in the first round and lost to [David] Nalbandian in the second. But I could just have easily been drawn against [Guillermo] Coria instead of Norman... You need luck in the draws. "In the early rounds of an event, the best players don't give 100 percent. They know how to win by giving 40 or 50%. I feel that when I play my best and my opponent isn't giving his best, I can beat anybody." After a brief pause to reflect on what he's just said, he amends his statement: "Well, maybe not [Roger] Federer or [Andre] Agassi, but most players." Despite his successes on the tour last year (first-round wins in Los Angeles and Beijing), for now Hadad prefers to primarily compete on the challenger circuit against players ranked in the 200s and 300s rather than jump to ATP Tour qualifiers. After this week's Israeli futures tournament in Ra'anana, for instance, Hadad will take a week off at home with his family and then play at a challenger in Sarajevo. However, he does say that "from now on, I plan to play at each of the Grand Slam qualifiers." WHILE HADAD has been spending a lot time on rebuilding his own game, he also has a plan to improve the level of play in Israel. "We need several challengers a year here. "People expect [the Davis Cup team] to qualify for the World Group, but the support the players get is third-tier at best... There won't be any players in the future if the framework isn't improved." Hadad has done his research and knows that a more robust schedule can do wonders for a country's level of competition. "Look at Italy. Three years ago, there was almost no tennis there. Then they created around 30 tournaments - 15 challengers and 15 futures - and now they have five players in the top 100 and another six in the top 200. He also points to Brazil, which leveraged the success of No. 1 ranked Gustavo Kuerten to install some 30 tournaments and "now has a handful of players in the top 100." He explains that while Israel "has good players, good coaches and good facilities," even the most promising players aren't going to get ranked if they aren't competing enough. Citing Valtzer as an example, he says: "Those players get most of their points in the few events that are here in Israel. Imagine if instead of six or seven there were 20. Those players would be ranked 200 or 300 instead of 500 or 600." The importance of local events is also financial, he says: "Not every player has $30,000 or $40,000 to travel to compete overseas... So, how will there be any tennis here in 10 years if there aren't any tournaments now?" Even among the women, where Israel has two top players in Shahar Pe'er and Anna Smashnova and a first-ever WTA Tour event scheduled to take place in October at Ramat Hasharon, Hadad is concerned that there simply aren't enough chances for the next generation. "What's one tournament a year? It's one week out of a 40-week season. "Plus, if they had a chance to play at home more, they'd be better prepared for the big matches." He notes the surprising defeat of Ram and Yoni Erlich to a relatively unknown British duo last year at a Davis Cup tie, which was costly for Team Israel, as well as Dudi Sela's loss in last month's tie against Serbia-Montenegro. "With more competitions at home, even the top players' nerves would be eased when they represent Israel in Davis and Fed Cup competitions." Although Hadad hasn't represented Israel in over three years, he hopes to receive a call from Davis Cup captain Eyal Ran soon. "I think I should have been invited against Serbia," he says. Hadad would love a chance to again play at home in front a full stadium rather than just the couple of dozen that were in the stands during his matches last week. In the meantime, Hadad will continue to focus on his single's journey, hoping that his game-play for rankings success will start to pay off soon.