Tennis

International Tennis Federation forces Israel to play ‘home’ match against Argentina in Sunrise

The Israeli team poses for a picture Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014 in Sunrise, Fla. From left to right: Andy Ram, Yoni Erlich, Dudi Sela, Bar Botzer, captain Eyal Ran.
The Israeli team poses for a picture Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014 in Sunrise, Fla. From left to right: Andy Ram, Yoni Erlich, Dudi Sela, Bar Botzer, captain Eyal Ran. Israel Tennis Association

Israel is listed as the home team for this weekend’s Davis Cup tennis matches against Argentina, but nothing could be further from the truth. The matches are being played in Sunrise, against the Israelis’ wishes, 6,500 miles away from their home stadium.

The Israeli team expected to benefit from home court advantage in Tel Aviv this weekend, as it faces the favored Argentines. The 11,500-seat Nokia Arena was sold out, and Israeli players were eager to provide a joyous distraction to their fans, many of whom spent their summer seeking shelter from Hamas missiles as the sound of air-raid sirens blared.

Instead, the Israelis had to fly 14 hours to their “home’’ matches at the Sunrise Tennis Center because the International Tennis Federation ruled last month that the event could not be held in Tel Aviv because of the unrest in Gaza and instability in the region.

They required the Israel Tennis Association to move the event to a neutral site, which did not sit well with Israeli officials and players, who appealed to move the matches to another Israeli city and pleaded with the ITF to wait until late August to make their decision. Their appeals were denied.

“I am very disappointed in the decision to play here and not in Israel,” said veteran player Andy Ram, who is retiring after this weekend and wanted his farewell match to be in front of Israeli fans. “They took away our home advantage, but I can’t keep complaining. We’re here, and we have to focus on our matches now.”

Ram’s doubles partner, Jonathan “Yoni“ Erlich, said the team considered boycotting.

“In a way, it is a lose-lose situation for us,” said Erlich, who was born in Argentina and moved to Israel as a baby. “We lost our home advantage. At first, my thought was, ‘Screw it. I don’t want to travel 20 hours to play my home match.’ But if we don’t show up because we think it’s not fair, we give the win to Argentina, and the terrorists win, too. By making us move, they also win, but at least we will show the world we are strong and we are fighters.”

Argentine captain Martin Jaite, who is Jewish, said their team would not discuss the ITF decision. Argentine player Leonardo Mayer regrets the matches were moved because he said he was looking forward to visiting Israel and playing in front of the spirited Israeli fans.

The Israelis were given a week to find a new venue. They figured if they can’t play at home, they would do the next-best thing — play in a familiar place with a large Jewish community.

They considered New York and Los Angeles, but Sunrise seemed the perfect compromise. Most of the Israeli players had competed in South Florida, they had a good relationship with Sunrise club director Gabe Norona, and they have contacts in the South Florida Jewish community.

Although there are also many Argentines in South Florida — some of them Jewish — the Israeli team is hoping to see lots of Star of David flags waving from the stands.

“It’s not ideal, but we tried to create lemonade with life’s lemons,” said Vadik Drozdovski, Marketing Vice President of the Israeli Tennis Association. “The City of Sunrise has worked 24/7, bent over backwards for us, and we are very grateful.”

Sunrise Mayor Michael Ryan said at a press conference Thursday: “We are keenly aware of the circumstances that brought this event here. We know the Israeli team would have preferred to play at home, in front of the home fans. But we celebrate their presence here, and we seek to make it their home away from home.”

Drozdovski feels the decision to move was premature.

“We feel very upset that the tie was taken away from Israel,” he said. “We feel we could have played it with perfect conditions in Israel right now. We could have maintained the safety of the players. But we also understand the Argentine team was concerned. It’s not their regular reality the way we live it, so obviously, when you look from outside, you say safety first.”

Drozdovski, like Erlich, views the move as a victory for Hamas.

“The terrorists win with this decision, and that’s the most terrible aspect, when terrorist organizations create conditions in which citizens, culture and sport suffer, people who have nothing to do with fighting, people who only want to live their lives and try to maintain a normal way of life in spite of everything,” he said. “This hurts all over Israel. It’s a huge financial blow and a huge moral blow. This is when you say, I wish the international community would be more understanding of our situation in Israel. We’re really fighting to maintain normal life, and these kinds of things are always demoralizing.”

For ticket information, call 954-816-4491, or go to www.SunriseDavisCup.com The Sunrise Tennis Club is at 9605 W. Oakland Park Blvd. Matches begin at 11:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

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