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Tears as Israel clinch Davis Cup tie

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It was the experience and resilience of Dudi Sela that separated the Israeli team from the South Africans in their Euro/Africa Zone Group 1 Davis Cup tie, played at the Irene Country Club last weekend.
by JACK MILNER | Feb 08, 2018

The Israeli team, comprising Sela, Jonathan Erlich, Edan Leshem, Igor Smilansky and Daniel Cukierman, looked in trouble when they lost the pivotal doubles match to go 1-2 down in the best-of-five-match series.

However, a tough win from Sela in the reverse singles was followed by another gallant victory from Leshem in the final match. This saw Israel win through to a playoff match against the Czech Republic in April, which will decide which country goes through to the World Group of the competition.

It was a tough loss for the South African team, comprising Lloyd Harris, Nik Scholtz, Raven Klaasen, Ruan Roelofse and Tucker Vorster, as they also had some bad luck along the way. “Things were running very well when we went 2-1 up,” said team captain Marcos Ondruska,  but experience told me the tie was far from over.”

The format used at this event was an experiment by the International Tennis Federation (ITF). In the past, the tie was played over three days and each match was the best of five sets. The first two singles are played on the Friday, the doubles match on the Saturday and the two other singles matches on the Sunday.

This time, the event was played over two days and each encounter was the best of three sets. The first two singles matches were played from 16:00 on Friday, while the doubles and the other two singles matches were played from 11:00 on Saturday.

You’d expect the winning team to have enjoyed the format and the losing team to be negative, but on this occasion it was exactly the opposite. “While I feel the real test of tennis should be over five sets, I thought this format was fun for the crowd,” said Ondruska. “It moved a lot quicker and it was more fan-friendly.”

However, Israeli captain Harel Levy had a full go at the format. “Dudi had to play the second match on Friday night. It was interrupted by rain, went to three sets and finished late. Then he played the doubles, so he was first on the court at 11:00.

“He then was only given a half-hour break, which gave him just enough time for a shower and to get something light to eat. In the end, he had to play eight sets of tennis in about 18 hours.

“I take my hat off to Dudi, especially after they lost the doubles.”

It was clear Sela was battling a bit at the start of his singles match against Harris; he was 1-3 down in no time at all. “I started slowly and I was very worried,” said Sela. “But when you see your team cheering for you, it gets you going.”

He managed to fight back and level the set, but once in the tie-breaker, the whole match took a different turn. Harris suddenly looked in trouble and appeared to be carrying some sort of injury. Sela took the tie-breaker 7-2 and then raced away to win the second set 6-1.

“I noticed he wasn’t feeling well, but you can’t let that get into your mind,” said Sela. “I told myself to play solid and I would be fine.”

Harris admitted Sela was a very tough opponent. “He absorbs the pressure well and he rises to the occasion when he needs to. He makes you play on the big points.”

So, it all came down to the final singles match between Scholtz, the son of former Western Province rugby player Calla Scholtz, and 20-year-old Leshem. The match started poorly for the Israeli. But once the nerves settled, Leshem was magnificent. He broke the Scholtz serve twice to take the set 6-3 and, although the second set was a lot tighter, he never had a break point against him. However, he was constantly pushing the South African and finally, at 5-5, he broke serve and wrapped up the tie in the next game with a winning backhand pass down the line.

The emotion from the Israeli team was astonishing. Levy hugged Sela as tears rolled down his cheeks.

“Edan came out of nowhere today,” said Levy. “I’ve got to give him credit. He was fantastic!”

Levy was questioned as to why he chose to play Sela in the doubles. He defended the decision, saying because they were at one match all after Friday’s two singles matches, he wanted to play his strongest team in the doubles. “I was hoping after the doubles we would only need one more point, but it didn’t work out that way for us.”

Israel will face the Czech Republic in that country from April 6 to 8. It’s bound to be a challenging playoff, especially as the latter team will include Tomas Berdych. South Africa will have to wait until April to find out which team it will face later in the year.

“To lose like this was tough,” said Ondruska. “This is our first loss in a while and it’s a good lesson for the guys.”

 

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