Ram, Erlich give Israel lead over Sweden

Dudi Sela had gotten Israel off to a strong start on Friday, defeating Bjorkman in straight sets, 7-6(8), 6-3, 6-1.

ram erlich tennis 88.248 (photo credit: AP [file])
ram erlich tennis 88.248
(photo credit: AP [file])
With no superstars of the level of Maria Sharapova on show, there was a little less passion among the crowd at Ramat Hasharon's Tennis Center for this weekend's Davis Cup tie with Sweden. But Israel still managed to come away with a significant 2-1 lead after two days of play. The Canada Stadium was only half full when Dudi Sela's match against Jonas Bjorkman began in the winter sunshine at 11.15 a.m. on Friday morning and the 22-year-old knew it was up to him to generate some electricity. But when all was said and done, this was a far more succesful two days for Israeli tennis than last weekend's Fed Cup loss against Russia. Sela got Israel off to a strong start on Friday, defeating Bjorkman in straight sets, 7-6(8), 6-3, 6-1, before seeing Harel Levy swept aside by Sweden's number one player Thomas Johansson 6-1, 6-1, 6-3. On Saturday Australian Open doubles champions Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich gave their all in a 6-3, 7-6(3), 7-5 win over Simon Aspelin and Robert Lindstedt. The importance of the tie has not been lost on team captain Eyal Ran. If Israel manages to retain its lead and defeat the Swedes it will move into the quarterfinals of the Davis Cup World Group for the first time since 1987 and face Argentina, who took an unassailable 3-0 lead against Great Britain in Buenos Aires over the weekend. "I know we have a long way to go but I don't feel pressure, just excitement," Ran said after Levy's match on Friday. Although Levy looked as if he had hardly bothered to turn up for Friday's match, Johansson was clearly the most impressive player of the weekend, striking the ball with confidence, precision and power. At 32, Johansson may be ten years Sela's senior, but he will provide a tough match for the up and coming Israeli. The excitement level is sure to rise for Sunday's reverse singles matches. After Saturday's doubles both captains admitted the tie is far from over. "Our guys played really well on Friday...there are two open matches, we'll have to wait and see," Sweden's captain Mats Wilander said. Ran concurred. "We have put ourselves in a good position for tomorrow with two chances to get the point we need," he said. Sela's victory over Bjorkman was crucial for the home team, and delighted those in attendance. While he finished the match in powerful form, the Israeli may be thanking the weather for its assistance. A rare rain shower stopped the match with just under an hour played when Bjorkman was leading 6-5 in the first set and serving at 15-0. After an hour the players returned and Sela appeared rejuvenated, winning four straight points to break the Swede and then come back from 4-0 to win the tie break 10-8. It seemed Bjorkman knew he had missed his chance and the veteran tired in the second and third sets. Speaking after his match, however, Bjorkman refuted claims that the 13 year age difference between the players had made a difference, instead stressing that he has not played a competitive match for two and a half months. "I have said so many times that age has nothing to do with it. I believe 35 is not a huge age," Bjorkman said at a press conference. Levy's match was a forgettable affair and the Israeli was clearly disappointed with his performance. "He [Johansson] played very well and I couldn't get into the game," he said, glumly. "I hope Sunday's match will be better." Levy is due to face Bjorkman in Sunday's second reverse singles match, which will be a dead rubber if Sela beats Johansson earlier in the day. There is, however, a chance that Ran will replace Levy with Ram, considering the doubles specialist's high confidence and impressive play on Saturday. Ram and Erlich faced a difficult pairing in Aspelin and Lindstedt but were up to the task. A Ram backhand broke the Lindstedt serve in the second game. While Aspelin held two games later, the Swedes were again broken and the Israelis swept through to a one set lead. The second set was a tighter affair but Ram and Erlich stayed in control during the tie break. The Swedes broke the Ram serve in the third set to move ahead 3-2 but a Ram return in the eighth game, which bobbled on the net and landed on the other side, saw the Israelis break back and then win the match by breaking the Aspelin serve. "I think the confidence we generate for each other, even in tough situations, is what gives us the opportunity to end up as winners," Erlich said after their match. During last week's Federation Cup the Russian team complained about the obtrusive Israeli crowd, but there were no problems here. Ram was particularly thankful for the support of the 5,500 in attendance. "The energy which they give us is difficult to describe... when you get the momentum from the crowd you feel as if you are flying, it can only happen here," Ram said.