Tennis has been in the headlines a lot recently. Julia Glushko, Israel’s lesser known female tennis star made it to the third round at the US Open before losing to the experienced Hantuchova in a cliffhanger. Nadal was Jewish. Then he wasn’t. Or maybe he is? Que? Most importantly, we were outraged when our Davis Cup squad was fined for requesting not to play on Yom Kippur against the Belgians. This got me thinking about one of my favorite Davis Cup encounters that, by random scheduling or Divine intervention, also fell on Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur, 1994. I was 16 years old and got a job working as a sideline referee for the Israel Tennis Association. I come from a long line of tennis players that goes back at least two generations. Only problem is that I suck at it. Really. As much as I tried and practiced I barely ever won a match. Ever. Add to that my John McEnroe like temperament (without the talent) and my constant breaking, nay smashing of racquets and screaming and whining. The way tennis ranking works (in a nutshell) is that you gain points by winning matches in tournaments. The more points you have the higher you are ranked. Alternately, you might be issued negative points for disorderly and unsportsmanlike conduct. I am the record holder for most negative points ever accumulated in the Junior’s. If only they handed out trophies for that… anyway, since I kinda liked tennis and couldn’t really play it well, I decided to become a referee. If you can’t beat them, join them. And since most of them knew me already based on my reputation, it was a smooth transition. Like a computer hacker working for the NSA.
Israel was about to host Switzerland in the Davis Cup. This was the deciding match determining which team would remain among the top teams in the world and which would not. The final and decisive day of competition fell on the eve of Yom Kippur and our top two players, Amos Mansdorf and Gilad Bloom, were set to play Mark Rosset and Jakob Hlasek. Rosset was a Gold medal winner at the 1992 Olympics, was in the top 20 in the world and had one of the fastest, most intimidating serves ever. This guy was huge, approximately 2.01 meters. A real Goliath to our David, Amos Mansdorf. Jakob Hlasek and Mark Rosset had just come off a Grand Slam victory in doubles in 1992 at the French Open. Moreover, and perhaps most astounding is that the Swiss duo reached the finals of the Davis Cup two years earlier before losing to the US. This was a no-brainer to anyone who knew anything about tennis.
So there I was in my head to toe Hugo Boss uniform looking anonymous on the sidelines trying to avoid Rosset’s serve while screaming “Out!” so loud that people must have though I was a eunuch. It’s not easy being a sideline referee let me tell you. Besides dodging little yellow balls to your little blue balls, you have to deal with the anger and frustration of these supremely intense players, the scrutiny of the chair umpire and perhaps most importantly, the reactions of the crowd. Since the tennis community is relatively close knit in this country and everybody knew my dad, I knew that making a horrible mistake, or worse, making a call that went against the Israeli team, would shame me and my family (who were always in the stands) and prompt the angry mob to lynch us at the parking lot.
To further complicate things was my dad’s relationship with Mansdorf and Bloom. My dad made Aliyah in the 1970’s and along with people like Ian Froman and Shlomo Glickshtein helped build and develop Israel’s tennis centers and budding talents. Even though he wasn’t their coach he was close with both Mansdorf and Bloom. But I had sworn on the ITF rule book at the three day course and I take such vows seriously. After all, I now had a badge. I had been deputized.
Fast forward to the first match and the storm clouds gathering over Ramat Hasharon’s oddly named “Canada” Stadium. Yours truly is the middle service line referee, doing everything he can to protect his nuts from Rosset’s serves coming at him at upwards of 200 kilometers per hour. Mansdorf, at a whopping 1.67 meters (5’8) pulls out an amazing, unbelievable victory and evens the score at 2-2.
It is almost midday and most Israelis are wrapping up their Yom Kippur errands before settling in for the Highest, most Holy day of the year. Well, almost everyone. There were 5,000 people packed tight in those old concrete slab benches. They weren’t going anywhere. It was so noisy I could barely hear my own thoughts.
On paper Gilad Bloom didn’t stand a chance. He was ranked in the 100’s while Hlasek, a seasoned and experienced player was in the top 50. Hlasek had beaten Bloom quite handily a year before in Moscow and no one in the tennis world gave Bloom a chance. Later he would cite this disrespect as the reason for his upset. The disrespect, and of course, Yom Kippur as the main reasons he won that match.
It’s hard to explain to a non-Israeli the kind of serenity and quiet that is a Friday evening or an Erev Chag (Holiday Eve) here in Israel. All the stores are closed. The streets are empty. Even in Tel Aviv, our own bubble of secularism in the Holy Land, you can feel that sense of divine quiet. It permeates everything. It’s a sense that God, Buddha, Krishna, Tom Cruise or some great unknown cosmic energy is coursing through our collective veins. If that is the feeling on any old Shabbat, you can multiply it by a million to get a sense of the superlatively hallowed consciousness of Yom Kippur. If you add to that the ominous (and apocalyptic) storm clouds, the vibrations of a frenzied crowd that smells blood, you can begin to imagine the sheer rapturous nature of the scene.
Gilad Bloom played like a man inspired. I saw it in his eyes. He was possessed. I had only seen that look in one other athlete before – Michael Jordan. They used to call it being in the zone. He won that match and catapulted Israel onto the world tennis stage. More importantly I didn’t do anything to dishonor my family or country… well, at least not until many years later when I started blogging for TOI. Thousands of people rushed the court and carried Gilad in their arms. If you ask any Israeli tennis fan they’ll tell you that that impossible day and that inconceivable upset was Israel’s finest hour of tennis.
Which brings me back to the upcoming encounter versus Belgium. I know that it’s wrong to ask our boys in blue to play on Yom Kippur. It’s wrong of the ITF to fine us for it too. But I argue that maybe, just maybe we should play on the eve of Yom Kippur. To hell with them and the world. It seems that God, if he does indeed exist, is on our side at least on that Holy day.
Good luck boys.