Tennis: Back home, Eyal Ran holds court

Tennis Back home, Eyal

Israel's Davis Cup team will learn the identity of its next opponent on Wednesday, when the draw for the first round of the 2010 World Group takes place in Geneva. The national team is seeded seventh, but could still be drawn to visit Roger Federer's Switzerland, Novak Djokovic's Serbia or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's France. The side, which cannot be drawn against Sweden, as it has faced it in the first round in the last two years, will also have to play on the road if it is paired with Belgium or Chile. Eyal Ran's men are hoping to be drawn against either India or Ecuador, who are the weakest of Israel's possible opponents, with the host team in each of those ties to be determined in a draw. "Unfortunately I don't control the draw, but if I could choose who we would face I would pick India or Ecuador for two reasons," Ran told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. "They are relatively weaker than the other teams and against those two sides we will also have a chance to host the tie." The 36-year-old Ran may not have hit a ball during Israel's amazing run to the semis of the competition, but he has played a key role in the team's success. The captain took charge of the team four years ago when it was playing for its survival in the Europe/Africa Group I. The squad faced Zimbabwe on the road and was in danger of dropping into Europe/Africa Group II for the first time in four years. "To be honest, at that stage I didn't believe we could reach the Davis Cup semifinals," Ran said. "The only thing going through my mind was beating Zimbabwe and remaining in Europe/Africa Group I. It was a very difficult tie, but we won it and got off on the right foot." Dudi Sela made his debut in Harare and Ran believes that was an important change in the team, and not just for the obvious reasons. "Sela injected new life into the team and helped us to win on his debut. He connected with the other players immediately because of his personality and because they knew how to accept someone new," he said. However, the turning point, according to Ran, came in July 2006 when the team visited Great Britain in a Group I playoff in Eastbourne. "Levy could not play on the grass and Sela was also injured. It was a test of our maturity," Ran said. "We had lost to Great Britain at home the previous year and with the tie being played on grass many felt it would be almost impossible to win. However, we triumphed and that tie ended up making us a stronger and more unified team." The victory in England was the first of four consecutive wins that took Israel back to the World Group for the first time since 1994. "After winning in England we began a run of home ties against Luxembourg, Italy and Chile. Each one of those encounters was a different test and we passed them all and that made us a stronger team," Ran remarked. Israel would go on to lose to Sweden in the first round of the World Group in 2008, but Ran sees that defeat as another stepping stone in the team's long journey to the semis. "We felt we missed an opportunity when we lost to Sweden at home. The players took the defeat very badly because it felt like a one-off chance," he said. "However, we learned a lot from that loss. We all sat down to discuss the defeat and came to the conclusion that we can win in the World Group. We felt that if we get another chance we will make the most of it." The national team did exactly that, winning on the road in Sweden earlier this year, before getting the better of Russia to clinch a semifinal berth against defending champion Spain. "I'm never pleased with a defeat, but I try to look at the positive side. Spain was better than us and we were playing on the road and on clay," said Ran about the team's 4-1 defeat in Murcia over the weekend. "Our players gave their all, but we have no excuses. The Spaniards were better, even though we were equal to them in large parts of the encounter and that gives me some encouragement." Ran, who anticipates continuing to guide the team in the near future, is not sure his squad can reach the semis again, but remains hopeful. "The players have proven that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but I can't come and say that I expect us to reach the semis again," he said. "If we need to set ourselves a realistic target than I think it would be to remain in the World Group. If we manage to pass the first round, then we can begin talking about reaching the semis. At the moment, however, that is still a long way off."