When it was all over, when the fifth and deciding match was finally clinched on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in Sunrise, it was the Argentine team — not the “host’’ Israelis — jumping up and down celebrating, dumping Gatorade on each other, and dancing with their high-energy fans, who sang their lungs out all weekend long.
The favored Argentines rallied from down 2-1 in the best-of-5 Davis Cup Group Playoff series and won both Sunday singles matches in straight sets. Leonardo Mayer defeated Dudi Sela 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 in the first match, keeping Argentina’s hopes alive. Carlos “Charly’’ Berlocq then sealed it in the rubber match with a 6-2, 6-3, 6-0 victory over Davis Cup rookie Bar Botzer.
Berlocq was so overcome with emotion he ripped open his shirt, like the Incredible Hulk, and roared. It has become a tradition, Berlocq said, after winning big Davis Cup matches.
Argentina advances to the world final 16, which competes for the 2015 Davis Cup title. Israel is relegated to the consolation group playoff bracket.
“I am human, so before the match I was thinking about how critical it was, how I didn’t want to lose and have our team relegated, but I am a professional tennis player and trained to manage my nerves, to play under pressure, and I’m very proud of the result,’’ Berlocq said.
For Israel, it was a sad end to a complicated and emotional weekend. It was officially Israel’s home event. The matches were scheduled to be held in Tel Aviv at a sold-out 11,500-seat Nokia Arena. But the International Tennis Federation required the event be moved because of security concerns following the unrest in Gaza. Sunrise was chosen because of the area’s large Jewish population and because the Israeli team had connections with the Sunrise Tennis Club.
Crowds numbered around 2,000, and while the audience was pro-Israel in numbers, the Argentine fans made up for it with their volume and chants.
“We feel disappointed because we put ourselves into a great position, and were where we wanted to be in the last day,’’ said Israel captain Yael Ram. “We showed a lot of courage, and played good tennis.
“But credit to the Argentineans — Leonardo Mayer for his performance. He was very aggressive from the first moment, serving unbelievable. It was tough to find holes in his game. I am still proud of Dudi for coming and trying. For sure wasn’t his best day, but he’s the one who put us in this position. For Bar, it’s tough to play best-of-5 five, deciding match. He’s young.’’
Botzer, 20, is ranked No.776 in the world, and had never played a Top 200 player or best-of-5 format before this weekend. He admitted his lack of experience and fitness hurt him against 67th-ranked Berlocq, 31.
“I was sitting in the locker room watching Dudi, really hoping he could do his job, then I wouldn’t have to play,’’ Botzer said. “Once I saw the result, I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s all on my shoulders, pressure’s all on me.’ I tried to tell myself he will be more nervous than me because I’m playing a Top 100 and he’s playing me, 700-something, so pressure was on him. He played the same from the start to finish, and I need to learn to do that.’’
Botzer felt the Tel Aviv crowd may have helped energize his team.
“For sure, the crowd is the X-factor when we play at home, and it really is a huge difference,’’ he said. “The Argentinean fans were really good through whole time, really pushed their team. I wish we could have the same feeling if we were playing at home.’’
Mayer, who is ranked No.25, overpowered 84th-ranked Sela from the start, served 13 aces to zero, and had 40 winners to seven for Sela.
“He had a lot of energy, and I did not, I was feeling pressure and tired,’’ Sela said. “When you are tired and a guy is playing very good, it is very difficult. I was without power. If you put [retired Argentinean Mariano] Zabaleta in there, I would also lose.’’
“Dudi just wasn’t there today,’’ said Shlomo Glickstein, CEO of the Israeli Tennis Association. “He was very apathetic, didn’t fight enough, couldn’t rise to the occasion and make the other guy work a little bit harder. It’s very disappointing for me. [Mayer’s] a better player, obviously. He did better this year. But I felt if Dudi stayed there, longer points, and tried to put more balls into the court he would have had a much closer match.’’
Told that Sela said he would have lost to Zabaleta, Mayer replied: “I respect Sela, but I gave him a beating, and sometimes you have to just say, ‘The other player was better than me.’’’