Israeli tennis stars return to action

Pe'er aims high; Ram and Erlich seek Grand Slam final.

ram ehrlich 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
ram ehrlich 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
After a mere couple of months off, Israel's best return to the ATP and WTA tennis tours next week. The relentless tennis schedule allows the players no more than a couple week's holiday before preparation for the upcoming season begins. In six days the players will already need to be in top form if they are to realize their ambitions for the 2007 season. At the top of Israeli tennis is world No. 20 Shahar Pe'er, who had a fantastic 2006, climbing 25 places in the WTA rankings. Besides breaking into the worlds top 20, Pe'er also won three tournaments, in Pattaya City, Thailand; Prague and Istanbul, and reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time in her career, in the French and US Open. Pe'er's rate of improvement in the last couple seasons is nothing short of astonishing and you can expect bigger and better things from her this year. Pe'er, who leaves for Australia on Tuesday, plans to play only tier-one and tier-two events when possible. She will need to start defeating top-10 players regularly if she's to continue her rise up the rankings. Pe'er lost to top-10 players in the last four tournaments she played in 2006. She can no longer be satisfied with just pushing the likes of Justine Henin-Hardenne and Maria Sharapova all the way. "I've played well against the top girls so far," Pe'er said, "and I think the time has come for me to start defeating them. I've been working on my serve and on my net game. I hope I have an excellent 2007." The future of Israel's No. 2 female player, Anna Smashnova (63), is far less straightforward. The 30-year-old cut her 2006 season short, and it remains unclear how much she intends to play in 2007. Smashnova is undoubtedly in the twilight of her career and don't expect much from a player that has won 12 singles titles and was once ranked as high as No. 15 in the world. She can perhaps take a leaf out of Tzipi Obziler's book. The 33-year-old Obziler (112) had her best year in 2006. She reached a career-high ranking of No. 105 and won the biggest tournament of her career in Washington in August. The veteran was planning on retiring at the end of 2006, but her good form has encouraged her to continue playing. She will be looking for further improvement despite being one of the older players on the circuit. Yevgenia Savransky (202) will be looking to continue her rise up the rankings and to become a regular in the world's top 200. Julia Glushko (893), 16, will hope to continue her good form from the National Championships and make an impressive debut season on the women's tour. With the highest ranked Israeli singles player placed 176 places below Roger Federer, the fantastic doubles duo of Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich will once again be grabbing all the attention in 2007. Ram and Erlich finished 2006 as the seventh best doubles team in the world and took part in the season ending Masters Cup for the first time in their career. The Israelis will be eager to emulate last season's achievements and have set their sights on reaching a Grand Slam final for the first time. Israel's singles players will start the year on the Challenger circuit, with Noam Okun (178) beginning the season as the highest ranked Israeli. Okun, 28, was ranked as low as No. 301 at one stage last year, but his good form toward the end of the season saw him progress 123 places in a short period of time. It will be a crucial year for Dudi Sela (202) and Harel Levy (286). Sela, 21, was hampered by injury last year and failed to realize his huge potential. He should finally make his breakthrough in 2007, and his recent good form is an important step in the right direction. Levy, 28, made his breakthrough long ago and was ranked as high as No. 30 in the world in 2001. But serious injury almost brought his career to an end and he has never come close to rediscovering his pre-injury form. Levy begins 2007 injury free and has an ideal chance to climb back up the ATP rankings.