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Celebrating Mr Tennis in the holy land

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As a child in Johannesburg, Dr Ian Froman refused to go to kindergarten until they set up a place where he could play tennis in the garden. In his late 30s, he went on to be one of the six founders of the 14 world-class Israel Tennis Centres (ITCs), specifically created for children.

A gala event was held in honour of this now 85-year-old’s contribution to tennis in Israel at the Ramat Hasharon Centre in Tel Aviv on 28 June. The event celebrated Froman’s 46-year journey since initiating the project.

“It’s amazing that 46 years later, the centres are still growing. It’s an institution that’s getting stronger and stronger,” says Froman.

Present at the gala were those who helped Froman set up the centres and those who have been involved in running them.

“There were also a lot of Israel’s top tennis players over the years, people who donated money and helped the project financially,” he says. “It was a special occasion. You seldom bring together groups who don’t really know each other because some are in their 80s, some in their 50s, and some in their 20s, so it melded together the history of the Israel Tennis Centres. Everybody was proud and happy to see the results that have been achieved over the years.”

During the gala evening, a special film was screened about Froman’s contribution to tennis and society in Israel. “The centres have been a way of bringing children together in Israel, which is a melting pot of people from all over the world, from different societies, different religions, different backgrounds, different finances,” says Froman. “It’s hard if kids come to Israel from Ethiopia, Yemen, and Russia. How do you meld children together with such diverse backgrounds, and give them a way to meet and mix?”

Knowing tennis could be played by all ages, genders, and cultures, Froman believed he could use the sport to achieve this kind of integration.

“Tennis is an educational sport because whether you are playing competitively or socially, you meet people from all backgrounds irrespective of their finances or religion,” says Froman. “I started with this in mind. I was a dentist by profession. I gave it up for a sabbatical year, but I never went back to dentistry. My tennis project just took off from there. Fundraising became a big aspect of it. In life, everything is timing. When hitting the ball in tennis, you need to time it correctly. If you get married or go into business, timing is essential. For me, the timing was just right. It started just after the Yom Kippur War. Israel was pretty depressed. With the Russians and Ethiopians who came in afterwards, how would we help them integrate? You need to get children to be with other children from different backgrounds.”

Froman and fellow founders of the ITCs found some incredible volunteers who built up the centres, helped with fundraising, or focused on the tennis itself. “Over the years, we also had professional Israeli tennis players such as Dudi Sela [who had a career-high ranking of 29th in the world and reached the fourth round of Wimbledon],” says Froman. Not only are they an example to children, but they are wonderful ambassadors overseas.”

Froman himself reached the third round of the Wimbledon Championships in 1955 as an 18-year-old and met the likes of Jimmy Connors, Ilie Năstase, and Billie Jean King during his time playing overseas.

“Wimbledon was exciting because I had just turned 18 and never thought of playing at Wimbledon. It was an experience, second to none,” says Froman.

He says tennis has changed tremendously since his playing days. “When I played, it was only amateurs. Now professionals play. It wasn’t a sport where you earned your living.”

The son of parents who were two of the founders of King David Linksfield, with his mother being the first headmistress there, Froman started loving tennis at the age of four, and played during his time at King Edward VII School in Johannesburg.

“I did pretty well as a junior until I was chosen to play for a junior South African team that went overseas. After reaching the third round of Wimbledon, I came back and practised dentistry. I then made the squad for the South African Davis Cup team and was chosen for the Maccabi Games in 1961. I fell in love with Israel, and then met my wife, Ruth, back in South Africa. Her whole family were Zionists.”

Froman and his wife made aliya in 1964, and have lived in Israel ever since.

During the ongoing Maccabi Games, Froman, who has watched the 65-plus tennis category played in Ramat HaSharon, received a call from a Venezuelan woman whom he hadn’t seen for the 40 years since she came to Israel to play at his centres as a 14-year-old.

“I met a lot of people, and the achievement of the tennis centres together with a lot of hakavod, have made me a contented man in my latter years,” he says.

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