|ISRAEL’S LEVY IN SUNRISE CHALLENGER|
He once held the number 30 spot in ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) rankings, and in his heyday he beat Pete Sampras, Andy Roddick, Michael Chang and Tim Henman. But a hip injury set Israel’s Harel Levy’s career back. Today, at age 31, he is once more playing the challenger circuit, hoping to bring his ranking back to the top 100, but more importantly, he want to just enjoy playing tennis. The man who helped Israel to the semi-final round of 2009 Davis Cup competition spoke to JewishSport.org.
In Israel, Harel Levy is a household name for his part in helping bring back the glory days of Israel’s Davis Cup showing. Dropping from the World Group in 1987, Israel’s recent victories include the upset at home against Chile in 2007, and the victory against Sweden last March, when Levy played a critical part in Israel’s important victory. After losing to Tomas Johansson in five sets on the first day of play, and with each team having won two matches, Levy came back to beat Andreas Vinciguerra in another tough-fought match, breaking the Swede in the 14th game of the fifth set of the final match of competition to secure the win and Israel’s spot in quarter-final play. Harel and teammates then beat Russia in Tel Aviv to the delight of the home crowds before falling to Spain in semi-final play.
Levy was in south Florida recently, to compete at the 2010 BMW Tennis Championship in Sunrise, Florida, a warm-up for the Sony Ericsson Open. Levy’s current ranking (127) meant that he had to make it through the qualifying rounds in each tournament.
The Sunrise event presented a particular challenge, as players had to advance through three rounds of qualifying play in the first two days.
Levy managed to get through both matches in Day 1, winning both in two sets each. “When you have to play two matches on the same day in the qualifying rounds do you do your best to end each match in two sets so as to conserve energy, or do you just say to yourself -if it goes three (sets) it goes three.
“It’s not easy playing two matches in the same day, especially at my age, but my goal was just to win the first match – whether in two sets or three – and just see how it goes. The second match (against big-serving 18-year-old Serbian Filip Krajinovic) was a tough one, but I’m happy I won it in two (sets) so that I can get some rest tomorrow.” (After taking the first set 7-5, Levy had double match point at 5-4, but his young opponent managed to hold on to send the match into a tie-break, which Levy won 7-2. Levy went on to beat American Tim Smyczek the following day, also in two sets (6-2,7-5) to advance to the main draw.
The next day, in the first round of the main draw, Levy faced Italian Potito Starace (current ranking 73). Levy started out the match with an attacking game, but part-way into the first set began to show signs of the fatigue which caught up with him after three matches in the two previous days.
“He was moving me around and I wasn’t able to play as well and move as well. When you play a player at a high level you need to be able to move well throughout the match and not just for some points here and there. (The fatigue made it) frustrating; playing three qualifying matches in two days didn’t do me any good. I was hoping it wouldn’t happen to me today but there is nothing I can do. I’m not 20 anymore… that’s life.”
For his part, Starace spoke highly of his Israeli opponent: “(Levy) is a tough player who has been playing for many years, but I felt that I played very well today."
Levy had also to deal with both Mother Nature and the tournament schedulers. “I was here at 10:30 this morning, expecting to play at noon, but because of rain they pushed the match back to 1:30. Then to 2:30, and then to 4:00. Then they changed the schedule and put me in the second match and not the first as originally scheduled. So being here since 10:30 in the morning and not getting on to the court till 6:00 PM didn’t help at all either. But that’s not to offer this as an excuse – in the end I just didn’t win the match.”
While it hasn’t always been easy going on the professional tour, Levy has also seen great success with his Davis Cup team. Israel’s success in 2009 marked a return to the success of 1987, the last time Israel made it as far as the quarter-finals.
The victory in Sweden meant a lot for another reason – anti-Israel protesters outside the arena caused the local organizers to close the arena to all but players, team delegations and officials. While the matches were going on inside, police outside were being assaulted by rocks as demonstrators tried to storm the arena.
With emotions already running high, when Levy took the final match to give Israel the victory, the jubilation spilled out, as teammates hoisted Levy on their shoulders. Afterwards, he told reporters, “I am overcome with feelings. The most important thing is that I proved to myself that I am a winner. Whatever I did in the past, I made up for today.”
Levy added, “The fact that we are a cohesive team was significant in our victory. After all, we only have one player ranked among the top 100. We are very hard working – more than people know.”
“I enjoy playing Davis Cup,” Levy told JewishSport.org. “I love playing for my country. It’s a great feeling – it makes you very proud. Our 2009 success in Davis Cup play was amazing. We didn’t expect to reach the semi-finals and it was a great achievement for all the team. We were very satisfied. We always come very prepared for Davis Cup play. I myself was in very good shape, and winning (the deciding match against Russian Igor Andreev) in front of the home crowd was amazing. We hope one day we can do it again but it’s going to be tough.”
In early March of 2010, Israel faced Chile in first-round play in Chile. “We were actually in the air to Chile when the earthquake hit and we had to return to Miami. We were only able to get back to Chile three days later, and had to get to the site where the competition had been relocated to, some 300 miles north of Santiago.”
After (Davis Cup teammate) Dudi Sela was defeated by Fernando Gonzales 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, giving Chile a 3-1 lead at that point, Israel was eliminated from Davis Cup for this year.
“You’re always more motivated when you are playing in front of your own fans, and it’s possible that the situation there motivated the players all the more so. We were playing on clay which is their preferred surface, whereas in Israel we play on hardcourt. Dudi didn’t play as well as he wanted to against Nicolas Massu on the first day, and I had a tough match against Gonzalez.”
“We will play in December to remain in World Group, though we don’t yet know who we will be playing,” Levy added.
While he continues to experience some difficulty due to the hip injury, Levy says the most important thing is that he is enjoying playing more now. “I feel like I am playing some of my best tennis – maybe not quite as well as in 2000 – but I hope to keep enjoying it, and the most important thing is to for the body to hold up.”
Reflecting on his current comeback at age 31, Levy noted that “The higher your ranking, the more opportunities you have to play the bigger tournaments and the more people tend to respect you. But at my age, I don’t have the goal of reaching the top 30 –unlike Dudi, let’s say, who is young and for whom such a goal is important. For the present, I am getting close to the top 100 and that is my goal – to break into the top 100 once more. But I don’t look at it as if I feel like I have to prove anything.”
Now married, and with a baby on the way, Levy says he will play another two or three years. “As long as I am playing well and keep enjoying it I will keep on playing. As far as Davis Cup play, I will continue as long as the captain wants me. As far as I know there aren’t really any great players coming up to take over for Davis Cup play. But Andy (Ram, who partners with Yoni Erlich in doubles) just turned 30, and Yoni, who is coming off of elbow surgery, has been playing well (having done quite well in the Australian Open, where he teamed up with French veteran Arnaud Clement, the pair reaching the quarterfinals), and Dudi is young, so we should be around for a while yet until the next generation is ready to take over from us.”
Photo from Tennis-X.com Levy in Davis Cup Play