By JERUSALEM POST STAFF
The past 12 months have been an outstanding period for Israeli sportsmen and women.
From basketball to soccer, gymnastics to tennis, the cream of Israel's sportsmen have done themselves, and their country, proud by performing at the very top of their games.
Some of the most impressive moments came here in Israel. The rejuvenation of Maccabi Haifa captain Yaniv Katan played a significant part in ensuring that the Greens won soccer's Premier League and returned to the heights of the Champions League, while the national Davis Cup team created frenzied excitement with its successes on home soil.
The performances of Israelis away from home were equally uplifting. Basketball star Omri Casspi has outdone himself in just a few months in the NBA, soccer legend Yossi Benayoun has transformed himself into one of the most important players at Liverpool, gymnast Alex Shatilov has risen to never before reached heights, judoka Alice Shlesinger has fought her way to the top and swimmer Gal Nevo has made more than a splash in the pools.
As 2009 draws to a close we are asking you, the readers, to help choose the individual who will be named the Jerusalem Post Israeli Sports Personality of the Year.
There have been numerous candidates in this outstanding year, but the Post's sports department has managed to whittle them down and put together a shortlist of seven athletes.
The winner, who will be revealed in the December 31 issue of this newspaper, will follow in the footsteps of Paralympic swimming sensation Inbal Pezaro, who took first place in 2008, and tennis star Shahar Pe'er, the victor in the 2007 vote.
Readers can vote in the quick vote bot above or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Having first made his mark on the world of gymnastics by reaching the floor final at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Alex Shatilov moved up a gear in 2009. The 22-year-old's standout year got going in April when he became Israel's first ever medalist at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships, claiming a deserved bronze which he dedicated to "the people of Israel" as a Pessah present. It was all uphill from there as Shatilov won world championship bronze in October, at the tournament held at the London venue to be used for the next Olympic Games. Shatilov's combination of strength, agility and controlled power has made him a force to be reckoned with and one of Israel's top medal hopes for London 2012.
The quality of Alice Shlesinger's raw talent has been clear for years, but her failure to get past the early stages at the 2008 Olympics put a question mark over the likelihood of her reaching the very top of her sport. However, this concern was scrapped in 2009. In April the 21-year-old claimed a bronze medal at the European Judo Championships for a second straight year before claiming bronze at the World Championships in Rotterdam four months later. Israel has a proud judo history - Yael Arad won Israel's first Olympic medal in the sport in 1992 while Arik Ze'evi won a bronze in 2004. Shlesinger has a lot to live up to, but her determination could well see her rise to the very top.
With long-time partner Yoni Erlich out injured for most of the 2009 season the pressure was on Andy Ram. But the 29-year-old showed no signs of waning, taking the year by storm.
For much of 2009 Ram joined up with Belarusian Max Mirnyi, reaching the US Open semifinals on the way to a superb performance in the end of season ATP Tour Finals in London, where the duo was defeated in the final by the Bryan brothers.
Ram also reached the Australian Open mixed doubles final with France's Nathalie Dechy and became the first Israeli to play in Dubai, but his greatest triumph came when he was reunited with Erlich in the Davis Cup. After battling through anti-Israel protests in Sweden, Ram was crucial to Israel's stunning victory over Russia at the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv in July which sent the national team into the semifinals for the first time.
When Gal Nevo returned home from the European Short Course Championships in Istanbul last week with a bronze medal round his neck he was grinning from cheek to cheek. The 22-year-old had outshone all his teammates with an excellent showing which saw him finish third in the 400-meter Individual Medley and fifth in the 200 IM. His superb year began in March when he became the first Israeli in 20 years to win a medal at the NCAA swimming championships, claiming the 440 IM for Georgia Tech. Nevo also showed his potential at the FINA World Championships in Rome in July, where he finished sixth in the 400 IM, becoming only the fourth Israeli to swim in a worlds' final.
What a year it has been for the boy from Yavne. Back in May Casspi was part of the Maccabi Tel Aviv team which won the BSL title in a tight final match up with Maccabi Haifa. He had already said he would be including himself in the NBA draft but few analysts gave him much hope of making it in the best basketball league in the world. However, Casspi hasn't just proved his critics wrong, he has wiped the floor with them. The 21-year-old was chosen with the 23rd pick by the Sacramento Kings and went on to score 15 points in his first regular season game.
Casspi's work ethic has seen him tough it out in one of the most difficult arenas in the sports world, consistently improving. Just this week he fought his way into Kings' coach Paul Westphal's starting five for the first time, scoring a career-high 22 points in the win over Washington. If he can maintain this incredible rise the world is Omri Casspi's oyster, and he could very well open the door for other Israelis to join an NBA team.
After returning to Maccabi Haifa in the summer of 2006 it took Yaniv Katan more than two years to get over the failure of his six month transfer to West Ham. The expectations had been high but Katan couldn't cope in the English Premier League and was shadow of his former self for the following two seasons. The appointment of new coach Elisha Levy, however, seemed to light a spark in Katan, who came back into himself in the 2008/09 season. As Haifa captain, the 28-year-old assumed responsibility and led Maccabi to the league title for the first time in three years. He was then instrumental in the Greens' qualification for the Champions League, although Levy's troops were unable to compete at the very highest level of club soccer even with Katan's inspiration. Despite the European failure, Katan has maintained his position at Haifa and the team is currently nine points clear at the top of the Israeli league having won 12 of its 13 games.
A year ago Yossi Benayoun was in the doldrums, looking for a way out of his Liverpool nightmare.
Team manager Rafa Benitez's rotation system was frustrating the Israel captain and the Israeli media was full of rumors that he was planning to move on to any number of European clubs. How things have changed. After deciding to stay and battle for a starting spot, Benayoun suddenly became one of the most significant players at Anfield. As Liverpool fought with Manchester United for the league title, Benayoun's goals were essential. In April his stoppage time strike against Fulham sent Liverpool top of the standings.
And Benayoun also made his mark on the European stage last season, most memorably in February when his headed goal against Real Madrid gave the Reds a memorable 1-0 win. This season has been far less successful for Liverpool, but Benayoun has established himself as one of Benitez's most important players, a fact that was underlined when the manager was booed after substituting the Israeli in a Champions League game.
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