Israeli tennis bounces back

BY SIMON GRIVER, IPS

It has been a good year for Israeli tennis. Fast rising teenage star Shahar Peer looks set to break into the world’s top 20, while in the men’s game Andy Ram became the first-ever Israeli to win a grand slam tournament when he took the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon.

Israel’s national teams also performed well. The women’s team reached the World Group of the Federation Cup for the first time ever, while in the Davis Cup Israel’s men retained their place in the Europe/Africa Zone A Group with a historic victory over the British at Eastbourne — Israel’s first-ever Davis Cup victory on grass.

But it was Shahar Peer, 19, who emerged as Israel’s best-ever tennis hope over the past year. In only her second full season as a pro she reached her highest WTA ranking of 23 in June and has already amassed $550,000 in prize money. During 2006 she has won three WTA tournaments in Thailand, Turkey and the Czech Republic and reached the fourth round of the French Open, where she narrowly lost to Martina Hingis in three sets.

“Shahar has the ability, discipline and determination to reach the top 10,” observed her South African-born father, Dovik Peer, a high-tech executive. “But the main thing is that she enjoys her tennis. As parents we did not push her to become a champion. The priority was always to let her do what she wants to do.”

However, not everything has been clear sailing. In July, she parted company with her new personal coach, Adam Peterson (former coach of world number one Lyndsey Davenport), after just six weeks and struggled in the warm-up tournaments ahead of the U.S. Open at the end of August. Even so, few would bet against her becoming the highest-ever ranked Israeli player surpassing Anna Smashnova, who reached 15th place three years ago.

Smashnova herself, now just turned 30, has slipped to 64 in the world rankings in recent months but showed her old spirit when she won the Budapest Grand Prix in July, maintaining her remarkable record of having won the 12 major tournament finals and bringing her total earnings to date to $2.2 million. Despite this, she strongly indicated her desire to retire in the near future: “This may be my last tournament title. I haven’t lost my appetite for tennis, but I no longer enjoy traveling from city to city and hotel to hotel.”

Smashnova also successfully teamed up with Peer and Tzipi Obziler and Yevgenia Savransky to put Israel into the World Group of the Federation Cup, the world’s top 16 nations in women’s tennis. After seven victories over European opponents, the Israelis were awarded a technical victory in the promotion playoff over Indonesia, who refused to play in Israel. But with no players in the world’s top 200, it is unlikely that Indonesia could have beaten Israel.

The success of Israel’s women’s tennis has also resulted in the introduction of a first-ever top class WTA tournament scheduled to be played at Ramat Hasharon each October. But the inaugural tournament may have to be called off with leading women players reluctant to register for the competition due to the fighting in northern Israel in July and August.

The achievements of Israel’s male tennis players fall far short of their female counterparts. However, doubles specialist Andy Ram did accomplish a national milestone when he became the first Israeli player to win a grand slam title. The 26-year-old Uruguayan born player teamed up with Russia’s Vera Zvonareva to capture the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon, going one better than two years previously, when he reached the mixed doubles final in England.

“It was a fantastic feeling to win at Wimbledon,” commented Ram after lifting the tournament trophy in England. “But it would have felt even better if I’d been able to win the doubles crown with Yoni.”

Ram was referring to Jonathan Erlich, his partner in doubles tournaments. The duo has struck up an impressive partnership, which has seen them rise to seventh in the world’s doubles rankings. But a grand slam title has eluded them with the best performance a Wimbledon semifinals two years ago.

Ram and Erlich teamed up for a famous doubles victory in England over the British Davis Cup team as Israeli triumphed 3-2 over Britain to remain in the Europe/Africa Zone A Group for another year. The win was remarkable because Israel’s top two singles players were unavailable — Dudu Sela, due to injury, and Harel Levy, following a pay dispute over David Cup appearances with the Israel Tennis Federation.

The Israeli hero of the encounter with Britain was Noam Okun, who won both his singles ties. But Okun, 28, has slipped to 266 in the world rankings, well below his career high of 95 reached in 2002. Israel’s other leading men players also seem far from repeating the achievements of Shlomo Glickstein and Amos Mansdorf, both top 20 players in the ’80s and early ’90s.

For the time being it looks as though Israeli tennis fans will be looking to the women, and in particular Shahar Peer, for success in international singles tournaments.

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