Russian-Israeli tennis player makes history at Australian Open
(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.
The tale of the cricketer who perfected the googly
Reggie Schwarz – the name might ring a far-off bell? If not, for sheer romance – if not the manner of his death, which strikes a contemporary note – his story is worth re-telling.
The son of a German-Jewish merchant father who settled outside of London, Schwarz was born in Lee in 1875, and played three rugby Tests for England between 1899 and 1901.
His summer game was cricket but, certainly at first, he achieved little success. He hovered around the edges of playing for Middlesex but didn’t play regularly for the county, emigrating to South Africa in September 1902 where he joined the South African Railways.
Like many men of his class (he was Cambridge educated) he caught the mail ship to Cape Town in search of fame and fortune. Although he was unsuccessful as a cricketer in England, he had been exposed to the wiles of Bernard Bosanquet, two years younger than he.
Bosanquet has been widely credited by cricket historians as inventing the googly, (or, as it was once called, in honour of its founder, the “bosie”).
The googly is bowled with a traditional leg-spinner’s action, but instead of pitching from the leg and spinning towards the off, it does the opposite, spinning from off to leg.
From a batsman’s point of view, it’s difficult to predict (because it looks like a leg-spinner) and therefore difficult to play – a magic delivery, if you will. A mis-read googly is liable to bowl a batsman or hit his pads. If he survives with his wicket, the befuddled batsman is liable to look slightly stupid at the very least.
While Bosanquet invented the googly, he was seldom able to perfect it, interspersing the dangerous deliveries with some poor ones easy to score runs off. With a note of exasperation, the famous English cricketer, “Plum” Warner once called Bosanquet the “worst-best bowler in the world”.
First in the Cape and then in Johannesburg, Schwarz found the ideal, far-from-prying-eyes conditions in which to practise bowling Bosanquet’s bosie. Although he wasn’t immediately successful, he honed his craft, and was often a feature in the nets while others were having lunch or had gone home.
In 1904, he was chosen to tour England as a member of the South African team, the qualifications for playing for another country far more elastic than they are today. He was picked for South Africa essentially as a batsman, but in the fourth match of the tour against Oxford University, the students were cruising in their second innings and he was tossed the ball.
He was an immediate success. “Precisely 7.2 overs later, he had five wickets, all clean bowled,” reports a recent article on Schwarz in The Guardian, “and Oxford were all out for 167. He ended up as the tour’s leading wicket-taker, with 96 of them at an average of 14.81 per wicket.”
Upon his return to South Africa after the 1904 England tour, Schwarz did for others as Bosanquet had done for him. He generously shared his conjurer’s secrets, and by the time the South Africans were ready to tour England again three years later, they arrived with a legendary four-pronged spin attack.
Team-mates Aubrey Faulkner, Gordon White, and Bert Vogler had all caught the googly bug. England batsmen found them tricky customers. Schwarz took 143 wickets on the tour, some finding him virtually unplayable. Those who knew him as the likeable mediocrity lingering on the fringes of Middlesex when he left five years earlier, couldn’t believe their eyes.
As is the case with all those who broaden and deepen a tradition, whether in music, sport or the arts, Schwarz put his own unique spin on what Bosanquet had taught him. He had started out as a medium-fast bowler before falling under Bosanquet’s spell and it was natural for him to bowl his googlies at a brisk pace.
The speed at which he bowled added to the difficulty of facing him, and he carried on being a handful back in South Africa, particularly because coiled hessian (or matting) wickets were still widely in use and they encouraged the ball to grip, thus aiding spin.
Photos of Schwarz show why he was well-suited physically to spin bowling. He had long – almost delicate – fingers, perfect for imparting revolutions on the ball, and he was tall, so he let the ball go from a reasonable height, which added bounce.
Hard as he worked on his art, however, he was unable to master the orthodox leg-spinner. Had he been able to bowl the googly (with a leg-spinner’s action) and the conventional leg-spinner, like, say, Imran Tahir, the Pakistani-born South African, he would have revolutionised the game rather than providing it with a charming footnote.
Having returned to England, Schwarz fought on the Western Front as a major at the beginning of World War I, later being promoted to the position of deputy assistant quartermaster general. He survived the hostilities, but in a cruel twist of fate, died of the Spanish flu seven days after the armistice had been signed in November 1918, the victim of a virus rather than war itself.
Bacher on the plight of SA cricket
Only minutes before I spoke to Adam Bacher on Monday afternoon, Rassie van der Dussen lost his wicket for 98 against England in the fourth Test at the Wanderers, a score that would have made him the first Protea player to score a hundred in the series.
The passage of play was excruciating for Bacher, even from a distance. During his 19 Tests, he twice experienced the heartbreak of losing his wicket just short of three figures, so well did he understand the depth of Van der Dussen’s agony.
When asked if he could feel the stone in Van der Dussen’s heart as he trudged back to the dressing-room, Bacher replied with pathos, “I can, I can – I really can.”
The distress caused by Van der Dussen’s dismissal was difficult to accept in other ways, suggestive, as it was, of a broader cricket crisis. The Proteas lost the series 3-1, and there have been no South African centuries this summer. Temba Bavuma’s omission from the squad until the fourth Test was so unpopular, it prompted an outpouring of bile on Twitter.
The elevation of a “white cabal” with new coach Mark Boucher at its helm hasn’t been universally accepted, and there’s a populist critique which argues that Cricket South Africa (CSA) has lost sight of its transformation goals as a widely-derided board continues to cling to power.
Historians of the game might look back on the summer of 2019/2020 as a watershed season – the word Bacher uses is “crossroads” – in which South Africa slipped out of the top tier of cricketing nations.
The four Tests against England have shown us to be competitive – but only just – the Proteas losing three Tests on the reel after the opening win in the Boxing Day Test at Centurion. “We’re still a team who struggle to play on good wickets,” says Bacher. “As soon as we get onto good wickets, like those at Newlands and St Georges, we really battle to take 20 wickets. That wasn’t the case with England at all.
“The Centurion wicket was the one where Vernon [Philander, who played his last Test at the Wanderers] came into his own but after that, our bowlers struggled and our batsmen just didn’t get on top. There have been claims floating about in our cricket for some time that we’ve been preparing spicy wickets – I can’t see how that’s going to help in the long run.”
As hinted at earlier, Bacher sees the game as being at a fork in the road. “South African cricket is at a huge crossroads,” he says. “There is so much dust floating around that it is difficult to have a proper discussion about what’s wrong. We are no longer the kind of sporting nation we once were, and I don’t think that reality has really hit home. This isn’t the kind of discussion that can take place on Twitter, and we’re not going to find the answers there either.”
Bacher knows what he’s talking about because he was part of a group tasked by CSA with finding reasons for South Africa’s deeply disappointing loss to New Zealand in the 2015 World Cup semi-final in Auckland. For various reasons that report (which also had Francois Pienaar on the panel) was shelved, but it was resuscitated after the Proteas’ equally disappointing showing in the World T20 tournament in India in March 2016, in which they failed to reach the semi-finals.
Some of the recommendations of the second report – like the appointment of a director of cricket – have belatedly come to pass, but that report also fell on deaf ears, with the authorities reluctant, thinks Bacher, to address the issues raised within it because when it was submitted, cricket was in a temporary upswing. “We addressed the idea of culture in the team,” he says, “arguing that we were almost looking for an All Black approach to team culture where the culture is always bigger than the individual.”
“We also saw coaching as a big area of concern, and often not quite good enough to produce the players we need for Test cricket. Coaching is very good at the schools generally, it’s just that out of school, there’s almost a downscale because coaching suddenly isn’t as good. It’s an inverted system.”
The report Bacher was part of interviewed current Proteas and management staff, former players, coaches and administrators – about 40 people in all – and took months to compile.
Bacher finds it slightly ironic in the wake of the Test series loss to England that lessons weren’t heeded at the time, pointing out that Pienaar gave up his time for months, as did he. They were only ever reimbursed their expenses.
Bacher is pleased that some of the report’s recommendations have been implemented, but remains deeply concerned about the future. “I think the next six months are going to be very noisy,” he says. “You’ve got ultimatums from some major sponsors that the board at CSA still needs to go, and you’ve got a forensic audit pending on [former Chief Executive] Thabang Moroe. I don’t think that things are going to get any easier.”
The voice of cricketing reason
It is comforting, in these crisis-ridden and disorienting times to hear the clear voice of a cricket optimist. Adam Bacher is one such soul, a man who understands the game like few others.
He understands it as a former player, as a cricket thinker and, more recently, as a cricket dad with two cricket-playing sons. Such exposure – and understanding – allows him to talk about the sport with a long-suffering love always balanced by the idea that things are never quite as bad as they seem.
In such tumultuous times, his words are a balm and a tonic.
Bacher believes, for instance, that in spite of last week’s blood-letting at Cricket SA, the grassroots of the game are healthy. South Africa will always produce good young cricketers, he says, intimating that in spite of the destructive attentions of the administrators, the conveyor belt of talent is chugging healthily along.
“One of the positive things with all the negativity floating about last week [when Cricket SA parted ways with under-siege chief executive, Thabang Moroe, and Standard Bank withdrew as a sponsor] was that our conveyor belt remains as good as ever,” says Bacher with relish. “I am very excited about players like Janneman Malan and his brother, Pieter, down at the Cobras in the Cape.
“I don’t always get to watch as much as I’d like, but we’ve still got an embarrassment of talent. In that respect we’re still very healthy.”
Along with more high-profile names like Francois Pienaar, Bacher was roped into a panel to compile a report into South Africa’s performance after the 2015 Cricket World Cup, a prescient piece of work that never saw the light of day. Many of the issues he and others recognised as being barriers to success then are still present in the system now, he notes wryly, and although he doesn’t go on to detail everything, he does recognise that the endless politicisation of SA cricket serves no positive greater end.
“We talked then about team culture as being important,” he says. “Graeme [Smith] and Gary [Kirsten] bought into and drove the Protea Fire culture, but we haven’t really carried that on.
“One of the things the All Blacks are so good at is that the culture is bigger than any one player. Players can come and go, but the culture remains larger and more powerful. We’ve lost that.”
On the subject of Smith, Bacher thinks that his old King Edward VII-school colleague has a potentially vital role to play as director of cricket as England arrive for four Tests over the holiday season. “What you’re really looking for is a separation of powers,” he says. “I remember Jacques Faul [Cricket SA’s new interim chief executive] from his days when he was able to turn a profit at a small union like Western Transvaal. I think he should be allowed to concentrate on the commercial side of things, while Graeme handles the cricket issues and everything to do with the national team. I hope that comes to pass.
“What we also need is a return to a culture of watching the game. I know it’s not easy to put aside all the issues, but we need to say to the fans, ‘Please, come and watch’.”
Bacher’s love of the game has expanded over the years because he has two cricket-playing sons, Dean (15), a batting all-rounder like his dad, and Chad (12), a strong-willed leg-spinner who is already showing signs of being his own person and staying away from Adam’s old high school, King Edward VII.
Dad watches the boys playing cricket most weekends, and has developed a healthy respect for the benefits of club cricket – something he thinks is scandalously neglected by the authorities. “I watched Dean play with a very talented young 24-year-old club player recently,” he says, “and the older player helped him learn more in that afternoon of club cricket than he would do in months of playing at school.
“There were a few choice remarks thrown around, and he had to deal with a good spinner who bowled to attacking fields, but it was marvellous because the older player basically guided Dean through his innings. There’s not enough of that. Club cricket is generally neglected, it’s definitely a forgotten element.”
Correlatively, Bacher believes that the system is over-reliant on the schools producing the next KG Rabada or AB de Villiers. The learning gained from playing against wiser, cannier – and sometimes nastier – men is invaluable, he says.
By extension, one of the problems with our junior national teams is that these boys are embraced by the system too quickly. They are put into “training groups” and “pipelines” and “academies”, the kind of cricket hothouses that encourage them to grow but perhaps in slightly skewered and unbalanced ways.
This aside, Bacher isn’t pessimistic about South African cricket or the summer to come. The talent is there, he says. Let’s hope it gets its chance, because if the Proteas beat England in the Boxing Day Test at Centurion, much of the bleeding of the past week in cricket will be forgotten.
And we need that. We need that more than we know.
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