Tennis: Israel clinches victory over Italy

Ram and Erlich cap sweep of first three Davis Cup matches

Israel's Davis Cup team recorded one of its biggest wins ever on Saturday afternoon and booked its place in a World Group playoff for the first time in nine years. Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich clinched the victory for Israel over Italy with a 6-3, 7-6(4), 7-6(5) win over Daniele Bracciali and Potito Starace in Saturday's doubles match. The team enters Sunday's singles matches with a 3-0 lead in the best-of-five Europe/Africa Zone Group I second round tie at Ramat Hashsaron. Israel, which last played in the World Group in 1994, will be drawn against its playoff opponent on Wednesday and will play the tie the weekend of September 21-23. Dudi Sela got Israel off to a winning start Friday afternoon by defeating Andreas Seppi 6-3, 7-5, 1-6, 3-6, 6-3, in a four-hour thriller. Noam Okun beat Simone Bolelli 7-5, 7-5, 6-4, in the second singles match on Friday to give the hosts a surprising 2-0 lead against the higher-ranked Italians. Ram and Erlich secured Israel's victory with their fifth straight Davis Cup win on Saturday and set off the celebrations at Ramat Hasharon's Canada Stadium. "This is amazing, a dream come true," Ram said. "I was so excited, I woke up at 6 a.m. this morning and just stared at the ceiling. Nobody believed we would take this tie 3-0, but we always knew we could do it." Israel captain Eyal Ran was just as thrilled as his doubles player and is already looking forward to September's playoff. "I'm proud to be part of this team," Ran said on Saturday. "Everybody excelled this weekend and played unbelievably well. We made history today and I hope we can pull off one more victory this year." Ram and Erlich got the first break on Saturday in the sixth game of the match and claimed the first set after holding their serve in their next two games. Bracciali and Starace raced to a 3-0 lead in the second set, but after the Israelis won the next three games, the set was ultimately decided by a tiebreaker. After splitting the first eight points of the breaker, Ram and Erlich won the next three points and took a 2-0 set lead. Both sides held their serves throughout the third set, but once more the Israelis were more composed on crucial points and wrapped up the tie for Israel. The most exciting match of the weekend was the first of the tie in which Sela (203) outlasted Seppi (91) in five sets. After controlling the first two sets and taking a 2-0 set lead (6-3, 7-5), Sela suffered cramps in his left leg at the start of the third set and the Italian tied the match by winning the next two sets (6-1, 6-3). Seppi broke Sela's serve in the fourth game of the fifth and decisive set to take a 3-1 lead, and seemed to be on his way to a comeback. However, Sela reeled off the next five games to seal one of the biggest wins of his career. Okun (171), who was playing for the first time since returning from a month-long injury layoff, broke Bolelli (111) in the 11th game of the first set and held serve in the following game to take an important lead. The Israeli continued to control play and broke the Italian twice more in each of the next two sets to record the straight-set victory. The tie will be completed on Sunday when the two remaining meaningless singles matches will be played.