No longer an elitist sport, tennis is becoming more popular here among men, women - and children.
By DAVID E. KAPLAN
There was great excitement at the Ramat Hasharon Tennis Center last month when the Indonesian women's tennis team confirmed they would be playing there in a Fed Cup World Group II playoff on July 15-16.
"This will be the first time in history a sports team from Indonesia will be playing in Israel," Israel Tennis Association (ITA) chairman Assaf Hefetz told Metro last week.
Within 24 hours of the interview, however, the tour itself was history. Indonesian foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda had called it off. In sports parlance, it was a "bad call," no more so than for the Indonesians, who came out of this non-encounter as clear losers. Apart from facing a fine and future litigation, their default is registered as a loss.
Indonesia, which has no diplomatic ties with Israel, is the world's most populous Muslim nation and an outspoken critic of Israel. Nevertheless, the Indonesian government had given permission in June for their squad to travel to Israel. That was before the abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit and the military escalation that followed.
"We were expecting a packed stadium," revealed former South African Janine Strauss, CEO of the Israel Tennis Center (ITC). "From past experience, we know that most spectators usually buy tickets on the day; however, for this tournament tickets were selling in advance like hot cakes."
Tennis enthusiasts had been abuzz with the upcoming tournament - and not only because of the message that sports can transcend politics. It also presented a huge injection of enthusiasm for local women's tennis, which has been in the doldrums for years. While public interest in the men's game has fluctuated in tandem with the performances of players like Shlomo Glickstein, Amos Mansdorf, Gilad Bloom and Harel Levy, local women's tennis has had few stars to fuel enthusiasm.
The exception was teenage prodigy Anna Smashnova (now Pistolesi), who made aliya from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s but never fully realized her potential. More recently, local girl Shahar Pe'er has enjoyed a meteoric rise in world rankings from 183 at the end of 2004 to a career-high 23, and won her first major tournament in Prague in May. Joining Pe'er in the squad were Smashnova, Yevgenia Savransky and Tzipi Obziler.
For Strauss there was an added disappointment as the tour "would have felt like a homecoming."
In 1974, Strauss - then a law student at Tel Aviv University - represented Israel in her debut Federation Cup, as it was then called before the name was simplified to the Fed Cup. The tournament was held in Naples, and Israel was to play Indonesia.
"I was up against Lita Sugiarto, a pioneer of women's tennis in Indonesia. She was a great player who had reached the last 16 in the 1970 Australian Open and the French Open in 1974. She had previously performed well at Wimbledon and would go on to take the women's singles gold medal at the 1974 Asian Games."
Yet Strauss went on to beat her formidable opponent.
"To have hosted the Indonesian national team some three decades later would have been like closing a circle," she laments.
When it comes to Israel, politics and sports are never too far apart. Strauss recalls that during that 1974 Federation Cup tie, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) attacked a high school in Ma'alot in northern Israel, where a group of 100 teenagers were sleeping on the floor after a day spent hiking. Then, too, the terrorists were demanding the release of prisoners in return for their hostages. What followed became known as the Ma'alot massacre, and 26 young Israelis lost their lives.
"Because of the unfolding tragedy being played out back home, we were constantly under the media spotlight. But, unlike today, the sympathy was overwhelmingly with Israel. It was a tense time to perform on court, but we felt so proud to be playing under our national flag. What was so heartening was the support we received from local Neapolitans who approached us at every opportunity to speak with us. I find it so ironic that after all these years, when an Israeli women's team was to play an Indonesian squad again, Israel is once more under the dark cloud confronting a dreadful kidnapping."
On a lighter note, Strauss chuckles as she recalls her preparation for the tournament.
"Preparation? What preparation? We didn't train, we just rocked up. We played a few practice games before we left, and even for that we struggled to find a court. This was the age before tennis centers, and we had nowhere to train. The best woman tennis players in the world like Chris Evert were at Naples with their national teams, and we arrived without a coach and no uniforms."
Strauss's account of what conditions were like in those days puts into perspective the impact the ITC has had on Israel tennis. Some three years after she and her teammates returned from Naples, six men - William Lippy, Joseph Shane, Rubin Josephs and Harold Landesberg from the US, Freddie Krivine from the UK and Ian Froman, a former South African living in Israel - founded the ITC.
"I had represented South Africa at the Maccabi Games, so after emigrating to Israel I thought I would slot into the local game," recalls Froman, Hefetz's predecessor as ITA chairman.
What Froman found was "Nothing. I used to run around just to find a place to train and often used to sneak onto private tennis courts to practice."
This wasn't a situation from which future champions could emerge, so the ITC was born and over the years grew from strength to strength as tennis centers opened from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Beersheba in the south. Strauss takes particular pride in the ITC's achievement and cites as a comparison Britain, which "pours a fortune into women's tennis and doesn't have - as we do - a player in the top 50."
Pe'er reached the last 16 at this year's Roland Garros French Open, where she lost to former top world player Martina Hingis. In the previous round she defeated the world's number eight, Elena Dementieva.
"This is Israeli women's tennis's coming of age, big time! It makes it more the pity that the public was denied a rare treat to watch first-class women's tennis," says Strauss.
Despite the disappointment of the Indonesian pullout, there is plenty of tennis on the horizon. Starting at the tail end of this year and running through 2007, the ITC will be celebrating its 30th anniversary.
It should come as no surprise that former ITC executive president Dr. Ian Froman was a recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize. This recognition was bestowed not so much for the center's contribution toward striving for excellence, but more for providing community enrichment programs and popularizing the sport across the socioeconomic divide.
"Tennis should not be an elitist game, and we set out from the beginning to make it accessible to kids from outlying areas. We include children from all walks of life, providing them with a lifetime sport in an educational environment," says Strauss.
The ITC's programs promote integration based on the belief that children who play sports together can ideally transcend political and ethnic divisions. Supporting this philosophy, "Our programs include youngsters from the Arab and Druse communities, as well as children of new immigrants and those with special needs," stresses Strauss.
Last year, the Ashkelon tennis center ran a special program during the disengagement period when it bused in children from nearby Gush Kativ.
"We wanted to offer families a respite from the trauma they were experiencing as a result of the evacuation," Strauss explained.
The ITC claims to provide the largest children's tennis program in the world, impacting on the lives of some 350,000 youngsters, approximately 5% of Israel's population. Fourteen centers have been established since 1976, mainly in disadvantaged neighborhoods and development towns.
Another former South African who was roped in by Froman at the ITC program's inception was Kollie Friedstein, who immigrated from Johannesburg in 1942 as a member of Hashomer Hatzair. Imbued by the ideology of his Zionist youth movement, Friedstein says he was drawn to the concept "not so much to produce future tennis champions as to create healthy environments across the country, attracting kids who might otherwise be on the streets. I saw this as a further expression of my Zionism."
The advantages of sports centers were not always immediately apparent to everyone at the time. During the opening ceremony of the Jaffa Tennis Center, then-Tel Aviv-Jaffa mayor Shlomo Lahat was pelted with rotten tomatoes by local protesters. The center was established in an area known at the time for crime, prostitution and drugs, notwithstanding residents' complaints that they needed educational and social help, not tennis courts. Soon enough, though, the tennis center became the pride of the town, and people were advertising their homes for sale as being "within walking distance of the tennis center," recalls Friedstein.
ITA chairman Hefetz is no stranger to the political violence that derailed the Fed Cup clash. A former national police commissioner, he received a citation for bravery in the 1978 Country Club bus hijacking in Herzliya, where he killed two Fatah terrorists and arrested another.
Hefetz is not easily deterred.
"I believe we are witnessing the dawn of a new era in tennis, particularly in the women's game. The future of all sports lies with youngsters. And when you have rising stars like Pe'er, you present the next generation with role models to emulate."
ITC Tournament Department head Danny Gelley agrees.
"A clear case of Pe'er pressure," he quips. "Suddenly we see an increase in the number of kids registering at tennis centers. Why? It was the same with the men's Davis Cup match against South Africa a few years ago, when Harel Levy was at the top of his game. We had huge attendance figures; but to sustain public interest, we need consistently good performances from our top players. We have this from our doubles pair Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich, who never fail to bring in the crowd."
(Last weekend, Ram became the first Israeli Wimbledon champion when he won the mixed doubles title, together with his Russian partner Vera Zvonareva.)
Although the Indonesians kept a wide berth of Israel, Hefetz feels there is no holding back.
"We have the talent and infrastructure but need the media behind the sport. This we will have if we start hosting international tournaments like we used to, when international stars like Jimmy Connors, Brad Gilbert and Thomas Muster graced our courts," he says.
Despite the Fed Cup setback, women's tennis remains on course. This October, the Ramat Hasharon Tennis Center will host the $140,000 Anda Cup, sponsored by Henry Zimand in memory of his wife, Anda. It may not sound like a lot of money by international standards, "but it is by far the biggest women's tournament in Israel's tennis history. Clearly a start in the right direction," says Gelley, who is upbeat about the future. "No doubt overseas players will compete, and other tournaments will follow."
Clicking on "Tennis Programs" on the ITC website, the viewer is greeted with a pyramid that graphically depicts the life cycle of a tennis player passing through the seven stages of the ITC's program. Participants enroll at age four. If they are graced with abundant talent, are passionately committed and enjoy the support of their families, they may in their late teens reach the apex of the pyramid, called The Dream Team.
For the thousands of youngsters trotting off from school in their tennis attire to centers in Ofakim, Ashkelom, Arad, Jerusalem or Ramat Hasharon, what fuels them is the dream to make it big one day.
The following are some of the upcoming tournaments at Israeli tennis centers.
October 16 - 21
WTA Anda Open
Prize money $140,000
Ramat Hasharon Tennis Center
November 4 -18
Mansdorf International Junior Tournament
Ramat Hasharon Tennis Center
November 18 - December 2
Eisenberg International Men's Futures Tournament
and Phillips International Women's Tournament
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