Sinai Says: Harel's seven-year itch

It might not have been pretty, and the level of tennis could have definitely been better, but Levy thoroughly deserved his victory.

allon sinai Olympics 88 (photo credit: )
allon sinai Olympics 88
(photo credit: )
For most of the past seven years, Harel Levy has been the tragic hero of Israeli tennis. One awkward move on the grass courts of Nottingham in June 2001 at the age of 22, just days before reaching his career best ranking of number 30 in the world, resulted in complicated hip surgery and completely changed the course of his career. From being perhaps the brightest prospect in Israeli tennis history, Levy suddenly found himself going through an excruciating rehabilitation process, knowing he would never be able to get back to his best from an injury that few players have ever returned from at all. "I'm not going to be back to a hundred percent, but if I get back to 90%, I'll be very happy," Levy said in August 2002, not knowing how prophetic his words would be. Levy, who reached the Toronto Masters tournament final in 2000 and beat Pete Sampras at the Roma Masters the following year, went from being one of the ATP Tour's rising stars to playing in little Challenger events in godforsaken spots across the world. The tall and powerful player, a rarity in Israeli tennis, dropped out of the world's top-100 following his injury, and has spent the last seven years trying to reestablish his place among the world's elite. Levy, who is currently ranked No. 219 in the world, never stopped believing, but for all his efforts he never managed to come anywhere near to his former glory and ended up having to settle for a mediocrity rather than going on to achieve greatness. Ironically, Levy's worst enemy was his past successes, and only in recent years did he manage to overcome not just the physical implications of his injury, but the mental ones as well. "Harel went through some very difficult years of physical and mental rehabilitation. I think he's finally recovered from that and I feel he's learned to come to terms with the fact that he's no longer No. 30 in the world," Levy's long-time coach, Oded Jacob, who perhaps knows better than anyone else, told me last year. "His goal is to return to the top 100 and as result he is finally at ease with himself." However, even a return to the top-100 has proven to be out of reach for Levy so far, and to make matters worse, his Davis Cup comeback last year was anything but successful. After three years off of Israel's Davis Cup squad, Levy was recalled to the team last year ahead of the World Group first round tie against Sweden at Ramat Hasharon. Levy proved no match for Thomas Johansson in the opening rubber of the tie, and in the fifth and decisive match, he crashed to a defeat against veteran Jonas Bjorkman despite taking the first set 6-0. In the subsequent World Group playoff tie against Peru, he lost his only singles match, and the start to this past weekend's encounter in Sweden was also far from ideal, when he suffered a heartbreaking five set loss to Johansson in the first match of the first round tie in Malmo. Considering all of the above, it is quite remarkable that Levy eventually managed to get the better of Andreas Vinciguerra on Sunday to give Israel a place in the quarterfinals of the Davis Cup for the first time since 1987, and for just the second time ever. It might not have been pretty, and the level of tennis could have definitely been better, but Levy thoroughly deserved his victory with an extraordinary display of grit and determination many had claimed he no longer possessed. Levy's own words best sum-up the long-overdue and well-earned praise he's once again receiving after Sunday's memorable win. "Despite all the difficult years, scouring the globe to play in small tournaments with little success, I'm now experiencing a joy that has made it all worth while," he said. Levy may well be past his prime and he may never be a top-100 player again, but he now has one of Israeli tennis' greatest victories to his name and, regardless of what he achieves from now on, he will be remembered not as a tragic figure but as a true champion.