>Playing Tennis and Politics at the Same Time


           Tears of joy are infrequently seen at Israeli appearances in international sports competitions. But yesterday the tears spilled freely from the members of the Israeli Davis Cup tennis squad after the team upset Sweden, 3 matches to 2, to advance to the quarter-finals of this year’s international Davis Cup competition. After Harel Levy won the deciding match 8 to 6 in the fifth set, the winning squad wildly celebrated as though they had won the Davis Cup outright rather than just the prospect of meeting a very strong Russian squad in the next round. The Swedish loser in the final match, Andreas Vinciguerra, hurled his racquet into the (empty) stands and stalked off the court in frustration.
           Why all this emotional upheaval around a tennis match between two mediocre teams like Sweden and Israel? Neither squad had a player ranked in the top 50 in the world. Amir Hadad, one of the Israeli doubles players, is ranked 331 in the world. Vinciguerra, the #2 player for Sweden, hadn’t played world class tennis since October of 2006. Ordinarily, this match would produce yawns even from the most avid tennis fans in each country.
The key to the furor was that Sweden turned this piddling tennis match into an international cause célèbre. Palestinian supporters in Sweden had urged that the entire match be canceled. Leaders in the host city of Malmo responded by barring spectators from the Davis Cup matches in the 4,000 seat Baltic Hall arena. (This is the same city that weeks ago broke up a peaceful pro-Israel rally after pro-Palestinian counter-demonstrators began throwing stones).

The stated rationale for barring spectators was that Malmo could not guarantee security in the arena. But the local public safety director had said that security could in fact be handled for the arena and Israeli basketball teams have played before hostile audiences in Spain and Greece without serious incident. The intended insult to the visiting country was patent. Israeli tennis players were being told, in effect: “you are invited to participate in this cultural event, but your appearance will be closed to the public. Your nation is too repulsive to warrant better treatment.” Beyond the intended insult of the empty stands, a further element of extreme hostility faced the Israeli players. Thousands of Palestinian supporters, still upset that the match had not been cancelled entirely, demonstrated and rioted right outside the Malmo arena on the first 2 match days. They screamed their anti-Israel vitriol. Some masked demonstrators threw rocks and paving stones at the police. Some demonstrators tried to storm the arena gates.
In the face of all this hostility and insult, the Israeli players, not surprisingly, felt a strong emotional surge. They desperately wanted to salvage national pride by beating the ungracious hosts. Every one of the five matches became a titanic struggle. All four singles matches went to the fifth set. Players on both teams spilled their guts trying for every ball and every advantage. The level of tennis was only moderate, but then again every player on both squads was obviously feeling the weight of emotion generated by the atmosphere surrounding the competition. It isn’t easy to play top-level tennis while carrying a national flag in one hand; serving becomes especially problematic.
Despite the pressure, the Israeli players ultimately exploited their motivation and hung on for the overall victory. Dudi Sela, Israel’s #1 player, won two incredible five-set matches, the last against the wily veteran Thomas Johanson.
After Harel Levy’s last winning shot, the Israeli squad paraded around the near-empty arena waving a giant Israeli flag. Their pride in their nation and in themselves was palpable. The tears of joy spilled out. The Israeli television commentator shouted: “There is a God.” I don’t know about divine intervention, but what I see, in the wake of this tennis event, is a speck of justice in the world. In their zeal to bash and delegitimate Israel, the Malmo hosts shot themselves and the Swedish players in the foot. For if the arena had been filled with supportive Swedish fans, the Swedish squad would probably have prevailed. The hostile Malmo hosts engineered Israel’s advance to the round of 8 for the first time in 22 years. And they engineered the Swedish Davis Cup squad’s first loss ever after leading by a 2-1 margin after 2 days.
This Purim I’m dressing up as either Harel Levi or Dudi Sela. They’re my super-heroes.
– Norman L. Cantor

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