The well-worn tale of an Israeli tennis journeyman

Noam Okun could have had more success if it weren’t for a career full of injuries and lack of financial support from Israel sports infrastructure.

Noam Okun 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Noam Okun 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Noam Okun is a very busy man.
He may have retired from tennis last month, but it still took me the better part of two days to get ahold of him.
After 16 years of highs, and mainly lows, on the different global tennis circuits, the 32- year-old decided to call it quits in December. However, he has immediately moved on and is currently spending his days training to be a stock broker.
Okun sees himself getting involved in tennis once again in some capacity in the future, but for the time being he just wants to take care of his family.
Okun began his pro-career as a 16-year-old, but only really made his breakthrough five years later in 1999, entering the world’s top-200.
In 2000, he competed in his first Grand Slam tournament at the Australian Open, but just when the future began to look bright, he was sidelined by a nine-month knee injury.
This was to be a recurring theme throughout his career.
Time and again, whenever everything seemed to be finally falling into place, injuries cruelly robbed Okun of his chance to become a top player.
Okun reached a career-high world ranking of 95 in April 2002 and kept his place in the top-200 for much of the next five years.
But he never really realized his potential and now he has had enough of the professional game.
“When I was a young player, I had a never-ending drive to succeed,” he told me on Tuesday.
“Even when I was injured or lost a match I had the desire to come back and keep working and training. It just came to me naturally.
“Suddenly in the last 18 months I didn’t have that feeling anymore. I forced myself to practice. I forced myself to fly abroad. After losses I couldn’t even look at a tennis court.
“I know players who are ranked 30-40 in the world and don’t really enjoy playing tennis.
But they are so good at it that they continue playing. I gave so much of myself, but I was broken by the fact that I got so little in return.
“In the last few years I was never really physically fit and that resulted in a lot of retirements from tournaments. The injuries really affected me mentally.
I’m not a kid anymore and I have a family and understood that it was time to move on.”
Besides the aforementioned knee injury, Okun suffered serious shoulder, thigh, elbow and back injuries, to name just a few.
He believes that had he been luckier with his body, he could have achieved far more success.
“I realized maybe 50 percent of my potential,” he said. “As time goes by I begin to feel more and more that my career could have been so much better.
“I won’t say that I didn’t have a good career, because I know a lot of people who didn’t reach a quarter of what I achieved. But with my talent I could have done much more.
“I was always strong mentally, but the injuries stopped me.
Three years ago I endured a serious back injury and until now I suffer with it. I considered retiring then, but somehow battled through, even though I never really fully recovered. But my head was never the same. That injury completely broke me.”
Okun was a key member of the Israel Davis Cup team for over a decade, starting in 1999, winning 16 of the 30 singles matches he played.
Nevertheless, he believes he was never truly rewarded for his contributions.
“Even when I was at my best I didn’t get enough financial support,” he claimed. “I always had to make calculations of what I can and can’t afford. I couldn’t travel with a coach all year because I couldn’t afford it.
“I was No. 95 in the world and I was spending half of what I was earning on a coach.
“There was a stage when I was the Israel No. 1 and carried the Davis Cup team on my shoulders, but I got no support. I’d give everything, but was left to fend for myself. I know players who are ranked 300 in the world who get more backing than I got when I was in the top 100.”
Okun ended 2010 ranked No.
355 in the world, and with annual earnings of just $41,550, realized he could not continue playing for long even had he still enjoyed tennis the way he did in the past.
But he doesn’t leave the game a bitter man and hopes to one day return to tennis.
For the time being he looks set to watch from the side as the future of his sport in Israel faces so much uncertainty.
“I’m not optimistic,” he said when asked of Israeli tennis’s prospects.
“Anything can happen, but you don’t want players to appear in an arbitrary way. In Spain, France and Russia there is continuity and nothing is incidental.
We don’t have that in Israel.
“It is difficult to create players when there is no sporting culture.
In Israel we expect players to come out of nowhere. Sometimes that happens, but when it doesn’t, you can’t complain about it.
“If you don’t do enough to build a system that will nurture kids from the start until they reach the senior circuit you can’t expect to have top players.”