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Doubles Partners South Africa and Israel - a tennis saga of enriching contribution

 
By David E. Kaplan and Dr. Les Glassman
 
Sport is the best bridge,” says the Israel Tennis Centers Director of Coaches and Manager of Israel’s Davis Cup team Ronen Morelli who spent two weeks in March 2014 coaching tennis to children at the Arthur Ash Stadium in Soweto. Following this “opening set” in South Africa, these same children, together with their coach Moses Nthuping, spend two enriching weeks in January 2015 in Israel at the invitation of the ITC where they not only continued intense training but met and played with Israeli tennis players of the same age. For most of these young South African and Israelis, it was their first exposure on tennis courts with players from outside their country.
 
“I fell in love with these Sowetan kids from the moment the balls were skimming over the net,” says Morelli who has coached some of Israel’s finest players, including Grand Slam doubles title holder Andy Ram when he was in his early teens. 
 
What this recent exchange reveals is a long enriching tennis relationship between South Africa and Israel. “South Africans have made a huge contribution to tennis in Israel,” says Danny Gelley, the CEO of the Israel Tennis Centers (ITC), “and now we in Israel are proud to contribute to the development of tennis in South Africa, particularly to the less advantaged.” The value of this exchange was well expressed by the President of the South African Tennis Association Bongani Zondi who said: “These kids in Soweto come from poor families and we need all the professional help we can get. There is the bigger picture here of taking our kids off the streets and offering them meaningful and inspirational alternatives and this is where the Israel Tennis Centers come in. They are experts in this field and we want to learn from their rich experience.” Underlying this project in South Africa as it was in Israel’s early years is to ensure that youngsters from disadvantaged neighbourhoods appear on today’s tennis courts rather than in tomorrow’s criminal courts.
 
“My name being Moses,” said Soweto’s top coach Nthuping in Israel, “I feel like I have come home.” Actually, he achieved more than his biblical namesake, who never made it into ‘the Promised Land’. Now Nthuping’s dream is that these players “make it into South Africa’s Davis Cup team and play in top rank ATP tournaments.” And if that happens, Israel will be proud of its part in making dreams come true!
 
Open Court’ship When it comes to contribution to tennis in Israel, South Africans have been amongst the ‘top seeds’. While the ITC CEO Gelley’s wife Janine is originally from Johannesburg and his predecessor as CEO was Janine Strauss, who hailed from Durban, the South African who most contributed to tennis in Israel was Dr. Ian Froman, who would later receive Israel’s most prestigious civilian award - the Israel Prize. Representing South Africa at the 1963 Maccabi Games in tennis - having competed in the men’s singles at Wimbledon in 1955 - this young graduate in dentistry “fell in love with Israel” and made the decision to make Aliyah. Only snag was when he returned to Johannesburg after the Maccabi Games, he also fell in love with a young girl named Ruth.  After courting Ruth for a few weeks, he was now faced with a dilemma – it’s either Ruth or Israel.  “I doubted Ruth would ever come live in Israel and so I stopped asking her out.” Still, he could not shake her from his mind and so called her again to ask her out but this time she turned him down. Says Ruth, “I wanted to live in Israel and thought: “What was the point in pursuing a romance with a Joburg dentist!””  
 
 
 
Memorable Moment one of two South Africans to ever receive the country’s most prestigious civilian award, Dr. Ian Froman receives the Israel Prize in 1989 from President Haim Herzog.
 
Froman’s invitation to a function at Ruth’s parent’s home proved life-changing. An intimate chat over cocktails revealed they loved Israel as much as each other, and that same night announced their engagement. Shortly thereafter, the newlyweds moved to Israel and so began their journey into the history books. Froman never went on to practice dentistry and instead proceeded to change the face of tennis in Israel. 
 
It did not happen over night! 
 
 
A Revolutionary
 
After arriving in Israel, “I thought I would slot into the local game, only to discover Tennis in those days was something out of the Jurassic age. I used to run around like a madman just to find a place to train. There were no facilities and we often used to furtively sneak onto private courts to practice,” relates Froman. Apart from private courts, the only privalaged folk playing were mostly tourists at beach hotels. This motivated Froman who together with Freddie Krivine, Joseph Shane, Harold Landesberg, Rubin Josephs, and Dr. William H. Lippy began fundraising to launch tennis as a sport in Israel by building a national tennis centre. This was achieved on an old strawberry patch in Ramat HaSharon donated to the ITC by the government and on April 25, 1976, the late Leah Rabin, wife of the late Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzchak Rabin, cut the ribbon to the Center, and 250 children signed up to participate. Who in a sense also “signed up” was the Prime Minister who for the rest of his life played frequently for well-deserved relaxation.
 
The Israel Tennis Centers, under Froman’s direction, grew over the years from strength to strength, as tennis centers opened up from Kiryat Shmona in the North to Beersheba in the South. It was little wonder that this chapter in the history of tennis in Israel is referred to as the “Froman revolution”. In 1989, Froman received the Israel Price, the country’s most prestigious civilian award. 
 
This recognition was bestowed not so much for the Center’s contribution towards striving for excellence in the sport, but more for providing community enrichment programs and popularizing the sport across the socio-economic divide.  The centres from inception, catered to children and families from all religions and ethnic groups – without prejudice. 
“Tennis should not be an elitist game and we set out from the beginning to make it accessible to kids from outlaying areas,” asserted Froman. “We included children from all backgrounds and religion, providing them with a lifetime sport in an educational environment.” The ITC has proved an enriching sporting mechanism where Jews and Arabs can meet and play from a young age and foster better understanding.
 
Recognising the immense contribution beyond sport, State President Chaim Hertzog, said in presenting the prize to Froman: “You have created a virtual social revolution throughout Israel.”
 
What the State President meant by a “social revolution” was best explained by the late Kollie Friedstein, another South African roped in by Froman, who would go on to serve as Executive Director of the ITC as well as Chairman of the Israel Tennis Association. Friedstein had immigrated to Israel in 1942 from Johannesburg, imbued by the ideology of his Zionist youth movement – HaShomer HaTzair and was one of the founders of Kibbutz Shoval in the Negev.  Friedstein disclosed that he was drawn to the ITC concept, “not so much to produce future tennis champions, but of creating healthy environments across the country attracting kids who might otherwise be on the streets. I saw this as an expression of my Zionism.” Of course, the advantages of sport centers were not always immediately apparent to everyone at the time. During the opening ceremony of the Yaffo Tennis Center, Shlomo Lahat, the then mayor of Tel Aviv-Yafo, was pelted with rotten tomatoes by local protestors. Established in an area known at the time for its crime, prostitution and drugs, residents had complained that they needed an upgrade in educational and cultural facilities, not tennis courts. Soon enough though, the Tennis Center became the pride of the town and people were advertising their homes for sale as being “within walking distance of the Tennis Center,” said Friedstein.
 
Apart from being one of the largest social service organizations for children in Israel and the largest tennis programme for children in the world, the ITC has over the years produced outstanding players who have made their mark on the most prestigious courts around the world.
 
While its graduates have included greats like Sholmo Glickstein,  Amos Mansdorf and more recently Dudi Sela all top 30 ranked players, it was the double players of Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich who made history for Israel by winning Grand Slam titles. In 2006, Ram became the first Israeli tennis player to win a grand slam title when he captured the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon with his Russian partner, Vera Zvonareva. Then in 2008, with  Erlich, the “Dynamo Duo” became the first Israeli  doubles tennis team to win a Grand Slam tennis title in winning the Australian Open in Melbourne. 
 
While most Israelis will know that the highest rank Israeli tennis player of all time has been in women’s tennis with Shachar Pe’er who on the 31 January 2011 was ranked world number 11, few know of her South African roots. 
 
Her father Dovik hails from Germiston in the former Transvaal. Dovik’s father Solly had volunteered as a doctor in Israel after the 1948 war where he met his mother who was working as a nurse at the hospital where he was stationed.
 
At the 2007 Australian Open, Pe'er made history by becoming the first Israeli woman to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event. In the 4th round she defeated world no. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova, but was defeated in her quarterfinal match against eventual champion Serena Williams. It was said that her few supporters in the stadium managed to sound louder than the rest of the crowd combined!
 
Cup Runneth Over
 
A sporting highlight for South Africans in Israel is attending the Davis Cup. For many years, volunteers from Telfed (South African Zionist Federation in Israel), manned the gates and served as ushers and organised the VIP tent, which always exuded a special festive atmosphere. There is nothing like watching a Davis Cup match in Israel, whether it’s against Great Britain, Chili, Austria or South Africa. One could be excused for thinking it’s more like war than tennis - a far cry from the sedate ambience of a Wimbledon or Roland Garos. With drums beating and blearing horns, the crowd traditionally erupts with every point won and then descends into the depths of despair with every point lost. Usually there are selected tunes for either – “David Melech Yisrael” for points won, with the players name substituted for “David” and the Funeral March” for points lost. Always placing the weight of the nation on the shoulders of their Israeli players, the spectators forget they are spectators and close calls are far too important a matter to be left to the likes of umpires, who battle to maintain decorum – generally an unknown phenomenon in Israel. 
 
 
 
Crowd Puller. Packed Ramat Hasharon Stadium for the Israel-UK Davis Cup.
 
 
“Please settle down,” and “Quite please” hardly competes against a vibrant Israeli crowd. Asking the manager of an overseas team how he felt about such partisan behavior, his reply was “What do you expect, its Davis Cup.” Apparently this is nothing compared to South America where it’s not uncommon for fans to lob cans onto the courts. A former Argentinean overhearing the conversation, recalled, how at one match in Buenos Aires “the army was called in.
 

Dynamo Duo. Israel’s celebrated doubles pair Yoni Erlich and Andy Ram after they defeated Chili in the Davis Cup at Ramat Hasharon.

 

Disappointment & Jubilation. Dr. Ian Froman and the British Ambassador to Israel immediately after the British team beat Israel in the final match of the 2005 Davis Cup in Ramat Hasharon.

 

Final Set
 
During January’s visit of the young Sowetan youngsters to Israel, workshops with their Israeli peers were held at a number of the ITC facilities offering the opportunity to meet Israelis from different parts of the country.  The writers visited a training session at Ramat Hasharon where they interviewed some of these fiercely driven young South Africans and Israeli tennis players.
 
“We train much harder here than in Soweto,” said 14 year old Jansmith Moseng. If his dream before arriving in Israel was to be No 1 in South Africa, now it is to be no 1 “in the world.” Clearly their sessions with Morelli were inspirational. “Training has been tough but Ronen knows how to get the best out of us. He teaches us that more important that even listening to the coach is that we must believe in ourselves.” 
 
Asked what the best advice has been, Moseng replied without hesitation: “I must be positive every time I step on the court.”Who is most positive about the project is Israeli Ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk: “We’re talking about Israeli coaches coming to South Africa and young South African players going to Israel. Imagine if in the future if we can get the top team players from Israel to practice and train together with South African players - either in Soweto or in Israel - I don’t know, maybe we can nurture the next Serena Williams or Shahar Pe’er!”
 
 
 
South Africa v Israel. Former Director of Telfed (South African Zionist Federation in Israel) Sidney Shapiro (left)  and Davis Cup tournament Director Danny Gelley  at the South Africa -Israel Davis Cup clash at Ramat Hasharon. Telfed provided South African volunteers to help assist with the running of the packed-to-capacity event.
 
While the ITC  - which has helped over 400,000 children in its 14 centres since it was established in 1976 - were primarily established in developing areas for youngsters from underprivileged neighbourhoods, tennis in South Africa today is working hard to shed the image of being reserved for the once privileged white community. There is much that the two countries can contribute to each other in tennis. At present the off-court score between the two countries is “love all’. 
 
Both countries are Game, Set and “Oh, what a Match!”

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