Sela and Pe'er aim for dizzy new heights

The 2008 season promises to be one of Israeli tennis's greatest ever.

peer 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
peer 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The 2008 season promises to be one of Israeli tennis's greatest ever. After cementing her place among the world's top-20 players in 2007, Shahar Pe'er (17 in the WTA rankings) will look in 2008 to build on another excellent year in which she reached the quarterfinals of both the Australian Open and US Open. Dudi Sela (64) finally made his long-awaited breakthrough in 2007, climbing an amazing 137 places in the ATP rankings. The 22-year-old, who won three Challenger tournaments during the season, has been in superb form in recent months and 2008 will be another crucial year in his fledgling career. Both Pe'er and Sela will also represent their country in the Fed Cup and Davis Cup World Groups in February, with the women to play defending champion Russia and the men facing Sweden. Oded Jacob, captain of the Fed Cup team and current coach of Tzipi Obziler and Harel Levy, believes Pe'er can challenge for a place in the top-10. "Pe'er will be in an uncomfortable position in the first six months of the season because she has got a lot of ranking points to defend. But if we look at her position in the end of 2008 she may well be close to the top 10," Jacob, who was Pe'er's coach for six years and an integral part of Israel's Davis Cup coaching staff for over a decade, told The Jerusalem Post. "Pe'er's proven that she's a legitimate top 20 player, but she'll need a bit of luck to continue to progress in 2008." The 20-year-old, who will begin her season in Gold Coast, Australia next week, has a new coaching staff once again this year, after hiring Spanish coaches Gabriel Urpi and former world No. 2 Conchita Martinez in November. "I couldn't see any significant change in her play in the final of the Israeli Championships against Obziler, but it's difficult to judge any change over one match," Jacob said. "We'll have to wait to see her play over a few matches against a higher level of opponent who will expose her weaknesses." For the first time in his career, Dudi Sela will enter the main draws of the ATP tournaments this season and will have a superb chance to build on last year's success, starting at Adelaide next week. "Sela has made a massive leap. The Davis Cup victories gave him the confidence and the belief that he belongs in the top 100," Jacob said. "I think the physical aspect is of crucial importance. He must be in excellent physical shape throughout the year. He will be playing excellent players day after day and that's why the physical aspect is so important. Sela proved in the Davis Cup that he can beat players of the highest level. Now his mission is to do so week after week." Obziler continued her unlikely resurgence in 2007, jumping 30 places to No. 80 in the world rankings. The veteran player will turn 35 years old during the coming season and Jacob feels that sustaining her current position in 2008 will be a success. "I think Obziler's goal for 2008 is to establish her place in the top 100. She has, however, hinted that she would like to play at the Olympics, so that means she wants to get close to the top 50," Jacob said. "Her age is a disadvantage and it's not easy to do what she's doing. I think that if she plays in all four Grand Slams and maintains her place in the top 100, we'll be able to regard 2008 as a success. Qualifying for Beijing will be a bonus." Another player who will be hoping to make her mark on the WTA tour is Evgenia Linetskaya. The 21-year-old, who made aliya last year, was ranked as high as No. 35 in the world in July 2005 and Jacob, who has helped her settle in Israel, believes that she can be a top player once more. "Linetskaya has the ability to return to the top 100. She's an outstanding player," Jacob said of Linetskaya, who is now ranked at No. 594 in the world. "She's been in the top 100 before and she's still young and is very determined. If she recovers from her personal problems she'll find herself in the top 100." Harel Levy (161) leapt 125 places in 2007 and the coming season will be nothing short of critical to his career. "I think this is a very important year for Levy. He had an excellent 2007 and he wants to build on that in 2008," Jacob said. "Levy suffered a very serious injury in 2001 from which some players have never managed to recover. He went through some very difficult years of physical and mental recuperation. I think he's recovered from that now and I feel he's learnt to come to terms with the fact that he's no longer No. 30 in the world. His goal now is to return to the top 100." Levy also intends to focus on the doubles this year, with the hope of emulating the success Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich have had recently. Ram and Erlich have reached the season ending Masters Cup tournament in the last two years, but have had little success in the Grand Slam tournaments since 2003, something they'll be keen to put right in 2008. Within nine days in February the Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams will play in the World Group of their respected competitions at Ramat Hasharon. "You don't have to be very clever to know that on paper Russia is a far superior team," Jacob said of the tie which will be played on February 2-3. "Even if they play their second or third string players they're better than us. However, playing in Israel with our crowd and we need to focus on what we know to do best and hope for some luck and perhaps even a miracle." Israel's men will, however, have a much better chance when they face Sweden five days after the Fed Cup tie ends. "Sweden's team is aging and they don't really have any up-and-coming players," Jacob said. "I wouldn't say Israel is the favorite, but the tie is wide open. We've already seen what the team can do when it's playing at home."