Sinai Says: The best of the best of the last 10 years

Sinai Says The best of

Countless Israeli sportsmen and women have excelled in the past 10 years, so choosing just five as my top athletes of the first decade of the 21st century has not been easy. However, I do feel that there is something unique which separates the numerous very good athletes from the truly great ones, and I believe each and every one of my choices reflects that. My selections will be split over the next two columns, with this week's featuring 3-5 and next Wednesday's revealing my top two Israeli athletes of the decade. No 5. Shahar Pe'er Tennis star Shahar Pe'er started the decade as a wide-eyed 12-year-old girl with big dreams and ended it as one of Israel's all-time top female athletes. Her prodigal talent was clear for all to see from the very beginning. In 2001, at the mere age of 14, Pe'er played her first ITF tournament, and in 2004 she made national headlines for the first time after winning the Australian Open girls' singles title. Pe'er also played her first three WTA Tour main draws in 2004 and in the five years since has cemented her place as one of the top 50 women players in the world. Pe'er, currently at number 30 in the world, was ranked as high as No. 15 in January 2007 and will finish in the top-50 for a fifth consecutive year next week. She claimed three titles in 2006 and reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and US Open in 2007, becoming the first Israeli man or woman to play in the last eight of a Grand Slam singles tournament more than once. Just as impressive has been Pe'er's resilience and commitment when the inevitable crisis struck. Pe'er had to deal with injury and a drop in form over the past year, falling to No. 68 in the world. However, she fought her way back up, winning two titles and climbing back to the world's top-30. Perhaps the most remarkable part of Pe'er's success is that we have yet to see what she is truly capable of. She has seemingly been around forever, but at just 22 this might not have even been the best decade of her career. 4. Arik Ze'evi The achievements of judoka Arik Ze'evi in the past decade are second to none. Olympic bronze medalist in 2004, three-time European champion in 2001, 2003 and 2004 and World Championship silver medalist in 2001. The 32-year-old also collected medals at the European Championships on four more occasions, not to mention the near misses at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the 2002 World Championships where he came within a single win of the podium. The nature of his sport has meant that Ze'evi has suffered innumerable injuries in his career, but he came back time and again, even recovering from a career threatening shoulder injury to take part at last year's Beijing Olympics. Despite his numerous accomplishments there is one which clearly stands above all others. Ze'evi entered the 2004 Athens Games in the prime of his career. However, after losing to Jang Sung-Ho in the quarterfinals his lifelong dream of winning an Olympic medal was in serious danger. The bitter disappointment of four years earlier, when he lost in the battle for the bronze medal in Sydney, surely began to creep into mind, but Ze'evi roared back, claiming two victories in the repechage before ultimately defeating Elco Van Der Geest to become just the fifth Israeli to win an Olympic medal at the time. Ze'evi's 100 kilogram frame may be impressive, but on that day in the Greek capital he showed that he has a massive heart to match it and that makes him a truly special athlete. 3. Alex Averbukh So extraordinary are pole vaulter Alex Averbukh's feats over the last 10 years that they are difficult to appreciate simply because there is no comparison to what he has accomplished in Israeli sports. Many Israeli athletes have won medals in the past decade, but none did so in a sport as important and popular as athletics. He was crowned European Champion twice in a row, in 2002 and 2006, and won the silver medal at the 2001 World Championships. Averbukh, who retired at the age of 34 earlier this year, also claimed the gold medal at the European Indoor Championships in 2000 and reached the final of the Olympic Games in 2000 and 2004. The Siberia native, who made aliya in 1999, was a master tactician, saving his best jumps for when he needed them most. He gave Israeli sports many memorable moments, but none more than his triumph in the 2002 European Championships. With the gold medal around his neck and the Israel flag wrapped around his shoulders, Averbukh wept uncontrollably with the national anthem playing at the Munich Olympic Stadium, almost 30 years to the day to the murder of the 11 Israeli sportsmen at the 1972 Games. No one knows what the future holds, but it is safe to say that Averbukh's exceptional career will likely not be repeated not only in the coming decade, but in this or the next generation.