Glorious victories have been few and far between in the history of Israeli tennis. In 1987, Amos Mansdorf reached number 18 in the world and in 2011 Shahar Peer reached the number 11 rank for a few months. In 2008, Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich won a grand slam doubles title at the Australian Open and were ranked 5 in the world in doubles. These sporadic world class accomplishments evoked Israeli pride, but Israeli tennis has, in recent years, remained in the doldrums.
A sparkling exception occurred this past Saturday when the Israeli Davis Cup squad beat a heavily favored South Africa team (SA) to advance in the 2022 Davis Cup competition. SA was led by Lloyd Harris a rising ATP star ranked 34 in the world in singles and 125 in doubles. In 2021, Harris had wins against top-ten players Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem, and Denis Shapovalov. And the SA squad also included the world’s number 34 ranked doubles player, Raven Klaasen. Israel’s highest ranked singles player was Ishai Oliel, ranked 343. Israel’s other singles player Daniel Zukerman, ranks 661 in singles and 574 in doubles. The expectation was that Harris would easily garner two singles victories and would team with Klaasen to give SA a decisive third point in doubles.
On Friday, the matches followed script, with Harris winning his singles match over Zukerman and the day ending with the score one to one (as Oliel won his opening singles match against a SA opponent ranked just below 1,000). On Saturday, though, Israel pulled off a spectacular upset. Israel started by winning the lone doubles match as Zukerman teamed with 45 year-old veteran Yoni Erlich to defeat Harris and Klaasen in 3 hard fought sets. The match was played at world-class level and Zukerman, despite his 574 rank, carried his team with outstanding net play and sharp returns of serve against the hard hitting SA opponents.
In Saturday’s decisive singles match, Ishai Oliel played spectacularly well and upset Harris in straight sets. No spectator could imagine that Oliel was 300 places below Harris in the rankings. Though Harris has one of the better serves in tennis, Oliel returned well. Oliel also showed tremendous agility in covering the hard-hitting Harris’ ground strokes. The crowd of 1500 in Ashdod was enthralled by the Israeli victories and cheered wildly. They were euphoric as Erlich and Zukerman led the winning Israeli squad circling the arena after the win.
The last wild celebration in Israel’s Davis Cup history occurred in starkly different circumstances. In March 2009, Israel met the Swedish Davis Cup squad in Malmo, Sweden. The leaders of Malmo had responded to public objections and threats from Swedish pro-Palestinian supporters by barring spectators from the arena that would have seated 4500. Outside the arena, thousands of demonstrators rioted, throwing rocks and paving stones at police while screaming anti-Israel vitriol.
That 2009 Israeli team desperately wanted to salvage national pride and they fought tenaciously for every point in the virtually empty arena. Dudi Sela set the tone, winning two exhausting 5-set singles matches. Harel Levy scored the decisive Israeli point, winning the last singles match 8-6 in the 5th set. The exhausted, emotionally spent Israeli team was overjoyed. They tearfully paraded around the spectatorless stadium carrying an Israeli flag.
In March 2009, after viewing the Davis Cup team’s display of courage and determination, I vowed to dress up that Purim as either Dudi Sela or Harel Levi, for they were my super heroes. This Purim I will be dressing as Ishai Oliel, Daniel Zukerman, or Yoni Erlich, my new super heroes. May they go on to create more moments of Israeli tennis glory!