The Friday Feature: Israeli tennis stars look to bounce back in '09 after rough year

Pe'er, Sela still hold country's best singles hopes; Levy, Okun pair up to extend careers while Andy/Yoni still a question mark.

Dudi Sela 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Dudi Sela 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
After a disappointing 2008, Israel's top tennis players return to their respective tours next week with hopes of getting their careers back on the right track. The biggest letdown of last year was undoubtedly Shahar Pe'er. The 21-year-old's career had gone from strength to strength until the start of last season, but in 21 tournaments in 2008, Shahar was knocked out seven times in the first round and only advanced to four quarterfinals, all in Tier III events or lower. Pe'er, who began the season at number 17 in the world, ended it ranked 38th, and the next 12 months will likely prove crucial to the remainder of her career. Oded Jacob, who has had a close connection with all of Israel's top players, whether as captain of the Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams or as a personal coach, believes the key to success for Pe'er in 2009 is far more basic than most think. "Shahar must first find the right coaching system; when she does that the results will follow," said Jacob, who feels Pe'er's new coach Pablo Giacopelli is the right man for the job. "I think this is the key for Pe'er and should be her main goal." Despite her poor year, Jacob is quite certain Israel's number one will climb the rankings once more very soon. "Last year, obviously hurt her confidence. However, Pe'er is a very strong girl and had previously experienced six years of consistent improvement. Two or three good matches can make all the difference," Jacob said of Pe'er, who will begin her season in Auckland, New Zealand and will play in Hobart the following week before moving on to Melbourne for the Australian Open. Like Pe'er, Dudi Sela also suffered a dramatic drop in the rankings in 2008 but, unlike his female counterpart, there were also many optimistic signs in his play last year. The 23-year-old fell from 64th in the world to a current ranking of 112, but in one week in China proved he can, when at his best, beat any player in the world. In 22 top tier ATP tournaments last year, Sela only progressed past the second round twice. However, on one of those occasions he advanced to the final of the Beijing tournament in September, sweeping aside world No. 5 David Ferrer, Tommy Robredo (16) and Rainer Schuettler (35) on consecutive days before losing in the final to Andy Roddick. "The second year on the main circuit is the toughest," Jacob said about Sela's overall performance in 2008. "He didn't manage to defend all the points he had hoped and that's why he fell in the world rankings. On the other hand, he also showed his brilliance, proving he deserves better than his current ranking. "It's very important he returns to the top 100 as soon as possible, so he doesn't lose his motivation and self confidence. I think he has a good chance to return to the top 60. We might not see it happen at the start of the year, but later on in 2009 it will be easier for him to do so." Besides Sela, who plays in Chennai, India, next week before traveling to Australia for the year's first Grand Slam, men's tennis in Israel sadly doesn't have much to offer in the singles department. Harel Levy (248) and Noam Okun (431) are already in their thirties and well past their peaks, and although they plan to continue scouring the globe in the Challenger circuit once more, they're also going to try out something new in 2009. Levy and Okun have decided to team-up as a doubles duo, perhaps hoping to emulate some of Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich's success or at least prolong their careers by a few more years. "They can play doubles for another five years, but their singles careers will be all but over in a year or two," said Jacob, who feels Levy and Okun will have a tough time making their way up the doubles rankings because of their current lowly position. "The physical aspect of playing singles is very significant and doubles is a different kind of game, which allows you to play until you're much older." The career of the 35-year-old Tzipi Obziler (175), who was elected to the Givatayim Municipal council in November, is also in its twilight and she is continuing to play mainly for one reason. "Tzipi is beyond the stage where she sets herself a target ranking. All she wants now is to maintain match fitness so she can play for the Fed Cup team in February and May," said Jacob, who coaches Obziler. The player who currently looks to be the main candidate to replace Obziler on the national team, when she does retire, is Julia Glushko. The 19-year-old is currently ranked 359th in the world, but Jacob believes she has what it takes to continue to rise up the rankings. "Glushko has some very special physical attributes. She's very strong and athletic and is built really well for tennis," he said. "She matured a lot last year and if she continues to do so this year there's no reason why she shouldn't break into the top 200." Perhaps the biggest question mark of 2009 will be the play of Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich. The duo experienced the best year of the players' career in 2008, but Erlich has been out with an elbow injury since the middle of September and is unlikely to be back for another couple of months. Ram will begin the year with Belarusian Max Mirnyi, with who he won the Vienna tournament in October, and will have to try and defend the Australian Open title without Erlich. "It's difficult to tell how Erlich will recover from this injury. It sometimes takes months to get back to form after such an injury," Jacob said. "If he gets over it, however, there's no reason why they can't repeat their past results. They're one of the best doubles team's in the world and that is something you don't forget."