Israeli Davis Cup team face tough test

The Israeli national team hasn't played at the competition's highest level since 1994.

ram, ehrlich 298  (photo credit: )
ram, ehrlich 298
(photo credit: )
Dudi Sela, Noam Okun, Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich start another Davis Cup season in Group I of the Europe/Africa zone this weekend hoping to chase down a spot in the World Group. The Israeli national team hasn't played at the competition's highest level since 1994, when the likes of Amos Mansdorf and Gilad Bloom still represented the blue-and-white. But the road will not be easy. Israel faces a favored Serbia-Montenegro side this weekend and if it wins it will travel to face Great Britain in April for the right to advance to the World Group qualifying round. A loss to Serbia will drop captain Eyal Ran's side to a relegation tie against the loser of the upcoming Belgium against Ukraine tie. Israel has not been in Europe/Africa zone Group II since 2001. Sela will start the best-of-five tie when he faces Janko Tipsarevic on Friday after the opening ceremonies, which are scheduled to begin at noon. Okun and Novak Djokovic will follow. Ram and Erlich will meet Ilia Bozoljac and Viktor Troicki in the doubles on Saturday, while the reverse singles are set for Sunday. Serbian captain Dejan Petrovic may decide to change his doubles nomination until one hour before the match. All live rubbers are best-of-five sets. Sela, who went 1-1 in his Davis Cup debut last September in Zimbabwe, will be playing at home for the first time. "It's not an easy situation to play the first game in front of Israeli fans, but I hope that they'll support me and that Noam Okun will step up to play after me with a 1-0 lead," Sela said. Sela, ranked 170 in the world, knows Tipsarevic (127) fairly well from their junior days, although the two have never met in an official singles match. The players also had a chance to spy on each other last week at the PBZ Zagreb Indoors event in Croatia. In fact, Sela lost to Bozoljac (180) in the qualifying round while Okun (196) defeated Troicki (336). Another advantage that Serbia has is that their captain knows Ram's game as few do. Petrovic and Ram teamed up several times in 2000 and 2001, winning challenger events in South America and qualifying for the US Open. Israel can ill-afford to lose the doubles point if it plans to win the tie. Perhaps the most important match on day one will be Okun's. The 28-year-old is always extra tough to beat at home. He's won seven of his last eight in Ramat Hasharon, with the only loss coming against former top 10 player Greg Rusedski. But the teenage Djokovic (70) is in peak form after reaching the semifinals last week in Zagreb. Thursday was not a banner day for Israel's top women players. Anna Smashnova went out of the Open Gaz de France with a second-round loss to third seed Nadia Petrova of Russia, 6-4, 6-1. Shahar Pe'er and Nicole Pratt lost their doubles quarterfinal match against Su-wei Hsieh and Tamarine Tanasugarn 6-1, 6-1 at the Pattaya Open in Thailand. Pe'er will take on Lourdes Dominguez Lino in the singles quarterfinals on Friday.