Sunrise is not exactly Tel Aviv, but the Israeli Davis Cup team was greeted with some elements of home Friday as it split its first two matches against Argentina in the best-of-5 weekend series.
The weather was hot. Security was heavy. Scores were announced in Hebrew before English. Fans — some decked out in blue and white, others in traditional black Orthodox suits and hats — danced to Israeli music while waving Star of David flags. One fan blew a giant blue vuvuzela to the staccato notes of a “Shofar,” the ram’s horn that is part of the Jewish High Holy Day services.
Israel was officially the “home” team, as the event was originally scheduled to be held at sold-out Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv. But the International Tennis Federation relocated it because of security concerns following the recent unrest in Gaza.
Unlike Tel Aviv, where a partisan Israeli crowd of 11,500 was expected, the audience at the Sunrise Tennis Center numbered closer to 2,000, and a large chunk of them were rooting for Argentina. The Argentine fans, dressed in sky blue-and-white-striped soccer jerseys, serenaded their team with “Ole-Ole-Ola, Argentina va ganar!”
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The first match was between 25th-ranked Argentine Leonardo Mayer and 776th-ranked Davis Cup rookie Bar Botzer, a gregarious 20-year-old who serves in the Israeli Army and had never played best-of-5 or faced a top-200 player. Despite the gap in ranking and experience, Botzer kept Mayer off balance and managed to win the second set before Mayer’s experience and fitness took over.
Mayer won 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1.
“I had great fun, the time of my life,” Botzer said. “It doesn’t matter winning or losing; I really enjoyed playing. I handled the pressure in a good way, played a decent match, wasn’t too nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought maybe he would serve bombs and I won’t see the ball, or rip shots and I won’t be able to play. But I felt comfortable out there. … I feel a boost of confidence for my future that I can compete in this level.”
Botzer, who replaced the injured Amir Weintraub, said it was a lifelong dream to represent Israel in the Davis Cup.
“I had goose bumps during the national anthem,” he said. “I felt the people at home through the camera. Even when the Argentine fans were singing, I enjoyed that as well.”
Mayer had never heard of Botzer and wasn’t sure what to expect.
“It was difficult,” Mayer said. “If you look just at the rankings, there’s a huge difference, but you still have to play the match and win three sets. It was complicated to play him because his shots aren’t hit as cleanly as the players I’m used to playing, so it was hard to get in a rhythm. Also, it was like an oven out there, and that can be an equalizer.”
After winning the second set, Botzer took a medical break to check out a leg twinge, and Mayer said that timeout allowed him to regroup. He cruised in the final two sets.
“It was nice to get into the air conditioning and relax,” Mayer said. “After that, I played more calmly, took fewer risks, and over the course of the entire match our difference in experience showed.”
Mayer will return to the ATP Tour once Davis Cup is over. Botzer goes back to the Israeli Army.
“In two or three weeks, I am going back to the Army, uniform, everything,” he said. “I’ve been in the Army two years, so I’m used to going back and forth. My boss in the Army was watching the match. I talked to him [Thursday night]. Dudi [Sela] told my boss he shouldn’t make me work so hard when I go back and then [my boss] said if I blew it, I’m going to go to jail.”
Sela, ranked 84th, played No.67 Carlos Berlocq in the second match, which was interrupted by a two-hour rain delay. It was a rematch of the U.S. Open first-round match a few weeks ago, which Sela won. The Israeli prevailed again, 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-2, 6-2.
Sela was serving at 5-4 in the second set, lost the game, then led 3-0 in the second-set tiebreak only to lose the set. He needed three break points to win the fourth game of the fourth set.
The doubles teams face off at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, and the reverse singles matches are Sunday.