The Israeli-Palestinian crisis has headlined world news for the last three weeks. The ongoing battle reached nineteen days Saturday, with over 1000 civilian casualties already reported. A 12 hour humanitarian cease-fire was proposed, but was eventually rejected by Hamas friday, who today announced that they have fired five rockets at Israel.
Israeli tennis player Dudi Sela resides in Tel Aviv, where Gaza has launched an aerial onslaught.
“It’s a very tough situation right now in Israel. It’s not easy for me to talk about. When I play I hear people in the crowd saying ‘play for the soldiers’. It’s very emotional. I play 100% just for them,”Sela said.
Saturday in Atlanta he reached the final of the BB&T Open, defeating Benjamin Becker 6-3 3-6 6-3, in the highest quality match of the tournament. Both players were striking the ball with such pace and precision. He’s into his first ATP World Tour final since 2008, where he lost to Andy Roddick in Beijing. He will play John Isner, the big serving American.
Sela’s play this week has drawn the attention of many Atlanta fans, and with each match that goes on, you can tell the Dudi Sela bandwagon has grown. ESPN’s Darren Cahill and Brad Gilbert said they were “jumping on the Dudi Sela train.” After his win over Becker, the Atlanta crowd gave him a standing ovation for his efforts.
Sela recorded his 100th career tour level win friday, and his 101st today. His game is easy on the eyes, and features among the best one-handed backhands in all of tennis. At 5’9″, Sela generates an amazing amount of pace, and can take the ball very early when he wants to. When you’re small, you have to make up for it with great movement, and Dudi certainly does that. In his quarterfinal match against Vasek Pospisil, Sela executed one of the best shots you’ll see all year, an on-the-run backhand down the line on match point.
Sela is no stranger to being a hero for Israel. His best performances have come in Davis Cup, where tennis players get the chance to represent their country. In all other tournaments throughout the year, players are competing individually. Tennis is the most individual sport in the world. There are no teammates, coaches, or caddies that can help you on the court. You’re all alone.
However, each year Davis Cup allows players to be a part of a team. For many, especially those who aren’t at the very top of the rankings, it is a top priority in their schedule. Israel has never been a tennis powerhouse, and Sela is the only singles player they have ranked inside the top 100.
In 2007, Sela defeated Fernando Gonzalez(who reached the Australian Open final that year) in a marathon five hour, five set match in front of a home crowd. This victory propelled Israel into the World Group for the first time since 1997.
Yaron Talpaz, the former sports director at Sport5 in Israel(equivalent to Ireali ESPN), talked about how the county rallied around Sela, especially during Davis Cup.
“Israel has been better than what the rankings show in team play and I think it’s part of the patriotic feeling the team had, especially in situations like these days(Iraeli-Palestinian conflict). And Dudi was always a big part of that ‘crazy’ good atmosphere,” Talpaz said.
Two years later, once again in the World Group, the Israeli squad made an improbable, drama-filled run. Sela produced a huge upset over Mikhail Youzhny, leading his team to the semfinals. A full story on Sela’s Davis Cup heroics can be found here, and it’s a great read. In that article, it talks about Sela getting stopped in public and praised for his performances.
Fans chanted, “Dudi, King of Israel” when he made a run into the round of 16 at Wimbledon.
There’s a lot of reasons to like Sela. For one, he’s about as honest of a player as you’ll hear from. After his quarterfinal match with Vasek Pospisil, Sela was asked why he took a medical timeout, despite looking fully fit.(Vasek Pospisil took one too, and received treatment twice more)
“(I took it) to do some thinking with myself about what I have to do. To relax,” Sela said.
Most players would have said they needed the MTO for a sore back, or a bum leg. But Sela readily admitted his decision and thought process, and won over many with his comments. After his dominate round of sixteen win over Sam Querrey, Sela talked about the state of his game, and was brutally honest.
“I’m serving terrible,”he said. The next day, after again having a less-than-stellar first serve percentage, Sela added,”Today was worse that terrible.” Saturday he served noticeably better, but was still not exactly thrilled. “Ehh It was okay. The last (point) the (first)serve was 79(mph) and the second serve was 78(mph), so I was not Isner today,” he said laughingly.
The Tennis Nerds spoke with a tournament volunteer, who was impressed with Sela’s level-headed, mild-mannered demeanor.
“Every other player in the draw has complained to some extent in the tournament. Dudi goes out there and doesn’t show any negative energy. He’s such a calm guy,” the volunteer said.
Want more? Sela has a great sense of humor. Last week in Bogota, he lost a close match to his good friend Ivo Karlovic, who towers over him at 6’11”. Instead of walking up to net and shaking Karlovic’s hand, Sela grabbed a chair from the court, stood on it, and gave Ivo a hug. It was an incredible moment. He hasn’t lost a match since, and appears to be playing some of the best tennis of his life.
With the crisis unfolding in his home country, Sela has given the Israeli people something to be happy about. You could feel how much it meant to him after the match when talking about the conflicts in his country. When all you can think about, hear about, and see is tragedy, people look for something, anything, to find reprieve. Dudi Sela is that reprieve for many in Israel.
Oz Havusha, a huge Sela fan who was born in Israel and now lives stateside, talked about how much Dudi means to his country.
“I am so happy for Dudi, I know how hard he’s worked for this his whole career. His success during this difficult time(for Israeli people) is really something to be excited about,” Havusha said.
Are you on the bandwagon yet? If not, you’re missing out.