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Russian-Israeli tennis player makes history at Australian Open

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(JTA) Aslan Karatsev, a Russian tennis player with Jewish heritage who lived in Israel for nearly a decade, is making history at the Australian Open.

It’s his first appearance in a Grand Slam tournament, and now Karatsev, who was ranked 253rd in the world after play resumed last year following a pandemic break, is in the semi-finals.

He’s only the second qualifier in history to make it to the Australian Open semi-finals, the fifth qualifier to reach a Grand Slam semi-final in the so-called Open Era (beginning in 1968), and the first male player to reach the semi-finals in his Grand Slam debut.

Along the way, the 27-year-old upset Argentine-Jewish standout Diego Schwartzman, who is ranked in the top 10, in the third round; top-20 Canadian youngster Felix Auger Aliassime in the fourth; and veteran Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals.

Next up is Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 seed and defending champion, in the semis.

Karatsev has soared to 114th in the rankings and no matter the result against Djokovic, he will break the top 50. “It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Karatsev said after this win.

Karatsev was born in the North Caucasus region of Russia. His maternal grandfather is Jewish.

“I moved to Israel when I was three years old with my family, and then I started to practice in Yafo, Tel Aviv-Yafo,” he said at a recent news conference. “I grew up there, practicing there until 12 years old, and then I moved back to Russia with my father.”

Karatsev said the Israel Tennis Association’s lack of funding was a major factor pushing him to leave. His mother and sister remained in Israel.

He moved to Rostov, Russia, for better training, then Moscow. From there, it was on to Halle, Germany, and Barcelona, Spain, before finally ending up in Minsk, Belarus, where he lives today. Karatsev still has an Israeli passport, and speaks fluent Hebrew.

The Australian Jewish News reported that in September, Amir Weintraub, an Israeli tennis player, and Avi Peretz, the chairperson of the Israel Tennis Association, tried to convince Karatsev to play internationally for Israel. But Karatsev had already signed on to compete with Russia in the Davis Cup tournament, which pits teams of players representing different countries against each other, Olympics style.

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A Jewish guide to the 2022 Australian Open

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(JTA) The Novak Djokovic COVID-19 scandal may be stealing the headlines ahead of the Australian Open, which starts next week, but there are several Jewish players looking to win big at the year’s first Grand Slam.

Here they are:

Mens singles tournament

Diego Schwartzman, seeded no. 13, is looking to make it past the fourth round of the Australian Open for the first time in his career. Last year, he lost in a surprising upset in the third round to Aslan Karatsev (more on him below). Schwartzman is coming off a strong showing at the start of the season. He notched his first win ever against a top-five player on hard courts, beating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-3. He has a tough draw, however, as he could face American John Isner in the third round (Isner has won their only meeting), and no. 2 seed Daniil Medevev in the fourth round (Medevedev has won all six of their match-ups). Still, I have faith – Schwartzman has taken down bigger players before.

Denis Shapovalov is also coming in strong. With fellow Canadian Félix Auger-Alissime, he helped Canada win the 2022 ATP Cup, defeating Spain in the finals. Shapovalov, seeded no. 14, was born in Tel Aviv to a Ukrainian Jewish mom and Russian Orthodox Christian dad, and he often wears a cross when he plays. But his mom (who is also his coach) considers him Jewish. Though he was born in Israel, his family moved to Canada before his first birthday. Last year, he made it to only the third round of the Australian Open.

At the 2021 Australian Open, Russian-Israeli Aslan Karatsev had a historic run. For Karatsev, who has Jewish heritage and lived in Israel for nearly a decade, it was his first appearance in a Grand Slam tournament – he had to play in the preceding qualifying tournament just to make the draw. But he made it all the way to the semi-finals before losing to eventual winner Djokovic. His ranking rose from 253 to 15 last year. He’s seeded no. 18 this year, with a possible third round match-up against Rafael Nadal. Karatsev’s paternal grandfather is a Russian Jew, and he still says Israel feels like home. He made aliyah when he was three, speaks fluent Hebrew, holds Israeli citizenship, and his mom and sister still live in Holon, Israel.

Women’s singles tournament

Does Elina have a path to victory? OK, before we dive into Elina Svitolina, she has unconfirmed Jewish heritage. She’s Ukrainian, and many articles identify her parents as Jewish, but she has never commented on the issue. Make of that what you will (she’s Jew-ish?). The women’s field has been wide-open for the past few years, with many first-time Grand Slam winners. Will Svitolina add her name to that list this year? She’s seeded no. 15 at the Open, and will probably go up against former world no. 1 and two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka in the third round.

In her tenth try, can Camila make it past the third round?

Italian Jewish star Camila Giorgi made her professional debut on the women’s tour back in 2006 (at just 16!). She’s now set to play in her tenth Australian Open. She’s never made it past the third round before, but last year was a big year for Giorgi: She claimed her first WTA 1000 event, winning the 2021 Canada Masters. Seeded no. 30, she has a tough third-round match-up, set to face world no. 1 Ash Barty. But let’s end with a fun fact about the Jewish athlete: her favourite book is The Diary of Anne Frank.

Unseeded American Madison Brengle is ranked no. 59 in the world. The 35-year-old made it to the fourth round of the Australian Open back in 2015, and she has played in the tournament (either the main tournament or the qualifying rounds) since 2007. The Jewish player from Dover, Delaware, faces world no. 102, Ukrainian Dayana Yastremska, in her first round, and Brengle has won their only meeting. If she wins next week, she’s up against powerhouse Naomi Osaka, reigning Australian Open champ, in Round 2. The last time Osaka and Brengle played was back in 2013, when Brengle won 6-2 6-2. Obviously, a lot has changed in the past nine years, but we never rule out a Jewish player pulling off a stunning upset.

Other tennis Jews of note

Israeli veteran Dudi Sela lost in the qualifiers, as did American Jewish player Jamie Loeb. Loeb’s fellow Jewish New Yorker, Noah Rubin, isn’t in Australia, instead playing on the ATP Challenger tour in Brazil. As of writing, it’s unclear if Canadian Jewish doubles champ Sharon Fichman is playing in Australia this year – she reached the Open’s doubles quarterfinals last year.

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Esports a green field for soccer pro Larry Cohen

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Larry Cohen trained with football stars like Gareth Bale, Harry Kane, and Gianluigi Buffon during his playing career, but now he’s cheering for the likes of Bale and other renowned players in the world of esports.

Cohen decided to hang up his boots in 2016 after playing for Jomo Cosmos, Chippa United, and Moroka Swallows in the top tier of South African football. However, he’s still involved with the game – albeit the simulated version.

His business, 38 Entertainment Group, brings together the world’s top footballers to play FIFA against each other, and Cohen enjoys egging them on, just like he supported his teammates sitting in the dugout as a substitute during his playing days.

“Sitting on the bench, you could watch but you couldn’t do anything, yet you still got that thrill of your team participating, winning, and you doing well,” he told the SA Jewish Report. “That’s the way it is with esports, because you have no control over the guys, but you’re there supporting.”

His father, Martin, whose gritty flair anchored the Highlands Park midfield in the 1970s, was his hero growing up in Morribrook Avenue in Linksfield North, Johannesburg.

“As a footballer, my dad was one of the best in the country,” says Cohen. “I always looked up to him. I got to see only a few clips of him playing, but he always guided me in the right direction without being pushy.”

Cohen’s time at King David Linksfield taught him the values, camaraderie, and what he describes as “the KDL fight” needed to believe in yourself and do well in life.

He admits he wasn’t the best student and got into a lot of trouble because his priority was “the beautiful game”, and playing for SuperSport United Academy occupied a lot of his time.

“In matric, I used to come to school quite late because I was training with a professional team,” he says. “Principal [Arnie] Altshuler wasn’t very happy with me. But it was a great experience. I loved being at King David, and the Jewish community is always close to my heart.”

Jomo Cosmos coach Jomo Sono gave Cohen his first professional contract at the age of 19. Having just returned from training with West Ham in England, he was thankful that his potential was noticed by the man who had played alongside his dad in a mixed-race South African team’s 5-0 win against a rebel Argentina XI during the apartheid era.

“It’s always not easy getting your first contract and to break into the professional ranks, but then it’s even more difficult to stay there,” says Cohen.

When Cohen was 22, he trained with English club Tottenham Hotspur.

“I could never play in England because I had a South African passport so I couldn’t get a work permit. I saw it as an opportunity to improve my game. I was training with the likes of Kane in the reserve team. A few days a week, I would mix up with the first team, which included Bale and Emmanuel Adebayor.”

A highlight of Cohen’s career occurred during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

He was set for an off-season break from playing duties at Wits when the club’s head of development, Eric Tinkler, gave him a call.

“One of the Italy players got injured,” said the former Bafana Bafana midfielder. “Would you mind training with them for the next 10 days?”

Cohen jumped at the chance. “Training with the likes of Gattuso, Pirlo, and Buffon was an incredible experience,” he says. “They were really friendly and welcoming. I remember going back to the hotel to have lunch, and Buffon, the Italian goalkeeper who is an absolute legend, pushed one of the players out the way and said, ‘No, Larry, you come sit here, my friend.’”

While playing for Moroka Swallows, where he recalls forming a great centre-back partnership with Roger da Costa, he almost played for Lithuania against the Wayne Rooney-captained England in a Euro 2016 qualifier at Wembley.

He was called up to the Lithuanian national team after finally receiving citizenship. Playing against England at Wembley would have been an absolute dream for the great-grandchild of Lithuanian emigrants to South Africa.

“It’s a pity it didn’t happen,” he says. “FIFA denied my call up, saying my citizenship had to come through my grandparents. It was heartbreaking, having worked so hard to reach that level.”

Bafana Bafana Coach Gordon Igesund then chatted to Cohen about playing for South Africa. “He said he was going to call me up,” says Cohen. “Unfortunately, about two weeks before the game, I pulled [a muscle in] my groin, and I was out for about a month. So, I had a few unlucky breaks in my international career.”

At the age of 28, he retired from playing because he had fallen out of love with the game. The unsuccessful call up to both national teams was “a bitter pill to swallow”. “It was always my dream to play overseas. I was at the age where I thought to myself, ‘I’ve done well, I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve in terms of becoming a professional footballer, I’ve enjoyed my time, and I’d rather call it on my terms.’ I wanted to pursue other dreams.”

He moved to London, and co-founded 38 Entertainment Group with fellow King David alumnus Jonathan Kark. “The business has two brands,” says Cohen. “One of them is Elevens esports, which we run and code with Gareth Bale. Working with him is great; he’s an absolute superstar. We have a professional FIFA team, so the guys enter competitions around the world. Currently, our FIFA team is second in Europe and sixth in the world.”

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the business starting an initiative called Combat Corona, in which 10 footballers played FIFA against each other live on Twitch. The likes of Bale, Paulo Dybala, Luke Shaw, and Mason Mount participated in the event, which raised money to help the United Nations Children’s Fund fight the pandemic.

“During our three events to date, we’ve worked with more than 150 celebrities from around the world and received just more than 10 million live views on Twitch,” Cohen says.

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The eight greatest Jewish sport miracles of all time

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(JTA) This Chanukah, we’re celebrating Jewish sport miracles.

We picked one for each of the holiday’s eight nights, plus one for the shamash. Our only criteria? Each moment had to feel miraculous – think underdogs, defying all odds, and incredible feats of athletic skill.

Night one: Sue Bird at the buzzer in 2001.

Close your eyes. It’s the Big East Tournament Championship in March 2001, between two women’s college basketball powerhouses: the University of Connecticut Huskies and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. With a few seconds left to play, star Jewish guard Sue Bird grabs the ball from a free throw rebound and sprints down the court. She stops inside the paint and shoots a fadeaway that gives the Huskies the win at the buzzer.

Bird’s buzzer-beater has gone down in history as one of the best shots of all time.

Night two: Diego Schwartzman defeats the “King of Clay” – on clay – in 2020.

On 19 September 2020, Jewish tennis player Diego Schwartzman achieved the nearly impossible, he defeated “King of Clay” Rafael Nadal on a clay court in the Italian Open quarterfinals.

In their tenth meeting, Schwartzman stunned Nadal in straight sets after losing his nine previous matches to the Spanish player who has dominated the surface like no other tennis player in history.

Night three: Linoy Ashram becomes the third Israeli to win gold at the Olympics – by 0.15 of a point in 2021.

At the postponed Tokyo Olympics, the 22-year-old won gold in the all-around rhythmic gymnastics competition, narrowly beating her Russian competitor, scoring just 0.15 of a point higher than Dina Averina. Ashram became the first Israeli woman to ever win a gold medal. If 0.15 of a point isn’t a miracle, what is?

Night four: Julian Edelman’s catch in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI in 2017.

With his New England Patriots down 28-20 with 2:28 left in the fourth quarter (they had been down 28-3), Julian Edelman reeled in one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history.

During what would become the game-tying drive, Edelman fought off three Atlanta Falcons defenders to make a miraculous catch in the middle of the field, one that seems more improbable with each replay. Tom Brady’s pass was swatted in the air by a Falcons cornerback, causing Edelman and three defenders to collide into a pile on the ground, limbs pointing in all directions, with each player trying to find the football. Edelman somehow kept his concentration and got his hands around the ball, weaving through the arms and legs of his opponents to grip Brady’s 23-yard pass. Even a last-second bobble wasn’t enough to break Edelman’s focus.

Night five: Aly Raisman makes an epic Olympic comeback as captain of the United States gymnastics Final Five team

At the 2012 London Olympics, gymnast Aly Raisman became a Jewish sports legend when she performed her floor routine to Hava Nagila and won gold.

After the Games, she took a break from competing, but in 2014, her comeback was swift. She was named to the 2016 US Olympic women’s gymnastics team, becoming one of only two US women – alongside Gabby Douglas – to make back-to-back Olympic gymnastics teams since 2000.

So why a miracle? There was her age – at 22 in Rio, she was the oldest member of Team USA. But as we found out a little over a year after the Rio Olympics, Raisman had also been a victim of sexual abuse by Olympic physician Larry Nassar. She became one of the strongest voices speaking out against Nassar in the years following.

Night six: Team Israel finishes sixth in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Entering the 2017 World Baseball Classic (WBC), Team Israel was ranked 41st in the world – the ultimate underdog. ESPN called the squad “the Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC”. The team’s odds to win the tournament were 200-1. Talk about David versus Goliath.

But the group, made up of mostly American Jewish ballplayers like Sam Fuld and Ty Kelly, pulled off an improbable four-game winning streak in the international tournament, beating several of the top-ranked teams in the world.

Night seven: Mark Spitz wins seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics.

In what is now commonly referred to as the Munich Massacre, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were held hostage and killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

But those summer games also witnessed one of the most dominant runs of any Olympic athlete: Jewish swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, setting a world record in each competition. He won the 100m freestyle, 200m freestyle, 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly, 4×100m freestyle relay, 4×200m freestyle relay, and 4×100m medley relay.

Spitz’s seven gold medals in one Olympics set a record which stood for a fitting 36 years until Michael Phelps’ eight golds in 2008.

Night eight: Annie Cohen Kopchovksy bikes around the world in 1894.

In June 1894, at the age of 23, Annie Cohen Kopchovksy set off from her home in Boston, leaving her husband and three small children, to journey around the world – by bicycle.

A Jewish immigrant from Latvia, she called herself Annie Londonderry after her sponsor, the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of New Hampshire. Her journey took her around the world and was a huge accomplishment for women’s athletics.

The shamash: Sandy Koufax and the 1965 World Series.

In the long and rich history of Jews and sports, there remains one player, one moment, one feat, that eclipses them all. The cherry on top. The icing on the cake. The shamash on our Jewish sports chanukiah: Sandy Koufax and the 1965 World Series.

Koufax is perhaps best known for that game he didn’t pitch. After a dominant 1965 season – for which he would win his second Cy Young Award – Koufax famously declined to pitch Game 1 of the World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers because it fell on Yom Kippur.

Koufax would go on to pitch Game 2, holding the Minnesota Twins to two runs over six innings, while striking out nine. The oil didn’t run out from there. On just two days of rest, Koufax took the mound for Game 7, and boy, did he pitch! Koufax hurled a complete game shutout, giving up just three hits while striking out 10. He was named World Series MVP (Most Valuable Player).

The best moment of the best Jewish player’s astonishing career. A true miracle.

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