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On The Rise... Dudi Sela

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Dudi Sela© Getty ImagesDudi Sela will lead Israel against Spain in the Davis Cup semi-finals.

Dudi Sela has used his heroic Davis Cup performances for Israel to establish himself as a force on the ATP World Tour circuit.

Dudi Sela was walking down a street on just another normal day in Tel Aviv when a car came to a screeching halt just inches away. The driver of the haphazardly parked car – a man Sela had never seen before – came out of the vehicle and barrelled towards the young Israeli.

Before Sela had a chance to react, he found himself in the man’s embrace. “Thank you very much!” the stranger said, before getting back in his car and continuing on his way.

Welcome to Dudi Sela’s new reality.

After leading Israel into the Davis Cup semi-finals for the first time ever with a shocking upset over tennis stalwart Russia, the son of Romanian immigrants has catapulted to hero status in his homeland.

“A lot of people stop me and say stuff,” says the unassuming 24-year-old, taking his fame in stride. “It’s nice. I like it a lot.”

A much different version of history could’ve been written for Sela and for his country when, a few years earlier, he stood at a crossroads. After a broken hand and poor performances at the Challenger level led to a rapidly-falling ranking, he considered an offer from older brother Nir to come live in New York and work with him in real estate.

Though seriously tempted, to give up tennis – the only life he’d ever known – proved a difficult choice.

Growing up in the small town of Kiryat Shmona, located on the northern border of Israel and Lebanon, Sela’s earliest memories included staying in bomb shelters during times of unrest and watching his eldest brother Ofer at tennis tournaments.

Tennis seemed to run in the Sela family blood, a fact they discovered a decade after they emigrated from Romania to Israel. When Ofer - 13 years his brother’s senior - was nine, he and father Michael began taking tennis lessons together. Within 10 years, both had risen to the top of their age groups with minimal practice.

Sela eagerly picked up his brother’s racquet when he was no more than three years of age, and also proved a natural on the court. “My brother took the talent from my father,” said Ofer. “He took my father’s genes.” His father also provided the necessary tutelage as his gifted young son began to establish his name in tennis circles.

Dudi Sela’s future Davis Cup teammate, Jonathan Erlich, would stay over at the Sela household when he played at tournaments in northern Israel and recalled the hype surrounding the youngster. “Everyone’s been talking since he was a kid that he was so talented and something special.” At the same time, he recognised: “I’ve been on the tour quite a lot to know that talent alone is not enough. I said let time do its work and we’ll see if he can develop and do something with his talent. Obviously he did.”

Given the lack of practice partners in a tennis-starved region, a 10-year-old Sela began flying twice a week to Ramat HaSharon. Two years later, with Sela ranking among the top juniors in the country, the family made a collective decision to move closer to the tennis center so that Sela would have every opportunity to practice with Israel’s best – including former ATP pros Gilad Bloom and Amos Mansdorf. “We wanted to give him the chance to try for a year. We said we’ll try and see, and if it’s not good then we go back to Kiryat Shmona,” says Ofer. “Of course we stayed. “

The sacrifice paid off. At 14 years of age, Sela won the European Championships. “It was a big thing,” he remembers, “and at that time I got sponsors. They gave me clothes, and it was a big deal when you are 14. That time I was thinking that I want to become a professional tennis player.”

Sela’s success also proved a pivotal point in Ofer’s life. Though he was ranked 200 at the time and could have played on the ATP World Tour for a few more years, he felt a higher calling to help his brother live up to his full potential. He says, “From what I understood, and from what I learned, I thought I could help him, take him to the Top 100.”

At his brother’s recommendation, Sela agreed to train outside of Israel in order to move towards his dream of becoming a professional player. He lived and worked with a coach in Austria for three years, travelled to tournaments with his brother, and found himself ranked among the top juniors alongside Marcos Baghdatis, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet.

But the transition from juniors to the men’s circuit was far from seamless. At just 5’9” in height, Sela had to work harder for points and realised that the talent that carried him through his younger years was not enough as he found his once-effortless wins replaced with myriad of losses against his less vertically challenged opponents. “He’s so talented, the way he sees the ball, that his decisions are good,” says Ofer, “but of course with 10 more cm it’d be a much easier life for him.”

While the other top juniors in his age group rapidly charged into the Top 100 with successful showings on the ATP World Tour, Sela instead made a slow but steady climb up the South African Airways ATP Rankings, relying on guidance from fellow Israelis Harel Levy and Noam Okun as they travelled the Challenger circuit together – “They told me which players had the worst backhands… I didn’t have a coach at this time so that helped me a lot.” By August 2005, he had broken into the Top 200.

But with his injury in 2006, he saw a frustrating reversal in his progress that made him re-evaluate his future in tennis. After much deliberation, he told Ofer that he would give it three more months. If he failed to resurrect his career at the end of that time, he would quit and try his hand in real estate.

He set off for the U.S. on his own, and when he returned to Israel in December, he came back a changed person.

“I felt like when I got to almost 400 that I had nothing to lose,” explains Sela, who clinched five Futures titles under his no holds barred mentality. Ofer says, “It doesn’t matter if you win Futures or Challenger or ATP, but when you win a lot of matches, you start to be more tough mentally. He was three months away from home – it was his longest travel ever – and I think he came home mature.”

With renewed focus, Sela qualified for the Australian Open the following January, beating Paradorn Srichaphan in the first round and coming within two points of upsetting Marat Safin before a rain delay halted his momentum and resulted in a five-set loss.

Then in September came the Davis Cup World Group Play-off tie against Chile. After years of dwelling in the bottom of Group 1 in the Europe/Africa Zone, Israel found itself in a position to return to the World Group for the first time since 1997. Though the squad had the services of doubles standouts Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram, Israel was looking for a singles leader – and Sela stepped up to the call of duty.

Two points away from a loss in the fourth-set tie-break, Sela came back to deliver a dramatic triumph in front of his home crowd at Ramat HaSharon, in doing so becoming the first player in Davis Cup history to win two five-hour plus matches in the same tie. “It was amazing,” says Sela.

“From then on, it was completely different,” says Ofer. “He saw that he could play with players in the Top 20, really Top 10 – Gonzalez was No. 6 in the world. It gave him a lot of ambition and motivation to work hard, a lot of self belief that he can really make it.”

Buoyed by the confidence of those two wins, an inspired Sela capped the year with a flourish in Asia, reaching his first ATP World Tour quarter-final in Tokyo and winning two Challenger titles in three finals to finish at No. 66.

The pattern would be repeated in 2008. After leading Israel past Peru in the Davis Cup World Group Play-offs with wins in both his singles rubbers, he went to Beijing and reached his first tour-level final – knocking out World No. 5 David Ferrer in the process.

Though he had points to defend from his Challenger wins a year prior, Sela opted to spend the final month of the year concentrating on his training in Israel, aware that the decision would cost him direct entry into the Australian Open draw. “I never really had one month to practice, always just two weeks at the end of the year. I wanted to work on some points of my game,” says Sela, who returned to the tour with added weight and confidence in his game. “I think physically I’m much better. I’m trying to take the ball much earlier, and coming to the net the shorter the point. Those two things have improved a lot.”

He immediately saw the payoff on-court. He qualified and reached the third round at the Australian Open, followed with a semi-final result in Memphis, and then did the unthinkable in Israel’s first round Davis Cup against Sweden in March. Sela eked out two five-set wins – the first in an 11-9 fifth set against Andreas Vinciguerra, the second against Thomas Johansson – to pull his country level with the home team. Levy then prevailed in another five-setter against Vinciguerra to put Israel through to the quarter-finals for the first time since 1987.

The feelings of euphoria would be eclipsed in three months time. With supporters cheering “Dudi, King of Israel” from the stands at the All England Club, he became the first Israeli man in 20 years to reach the fourth round at Wimbledon. The result pushed Sela into the Top 30 of the South African Airways 2009 ATP Rankings for the first time, and sparked a rush in ticket sales for the remaining seats in the following week’s Davis Cup tie against Russia.

A capacity crowd of 11,000 supporters – the largest ever for a tennis match in Israel – filled the basketball arena in Tel Aviv to witness Levy upset Igor Andreev in the lead-off position. Sela felt the added pressure following his countryman’s victory – “I knew that everybody expected me to win and it would be 2-0” – and fell behind in his opening set against Mikhail Youzhny. But he came back strong; he lost just one game in the next two sets, and closed out the win 7-5 in the fourth, giving Israel an improbable lead after the first day. 

Erlich, who would go on to clinch the tie with Ram, says of Sela’s performance: “He raised his level and almost played like a Top 10 player. It was unbelievable.”

“Overall he really understands the game and that’s what is important,” says Ofer, who ranks Sela pound-for-pound as one of the Top 5 players in the world. “He doesn’t have only one style, he can play many styles. He also worked really hard physically last year and gained some pounds, which helps him a lot this year in long matches and in hard conditions.”

Erlich views Sela’s laid-back mentality as an important proponent of his success: “He’s not someone who’s really intense. That’s why he succeeds. He’s relaxed, doing his game. He’s not a big guy that can smoke somebody from the court. He’s just very talented, plays with his quickness and his brain.” Erlich also understands how his younger countryman draws strength from his support team of friends and family: “We never try to tell him to do this or do that, but just try to help give him security in this atmosphere so he can relax and just be focused on his game.”

Though Israel’s best tennis player, Mansdorf, won six ATP World Tour titles and reached a career-high No. 18 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, Sela is happy to take things step by step without thinking of superlatives. Though he hopes to win a title this year, his main goal for 2009 is to finish the season ranked in the Top 50 and to continue his development as a player. “I have to improve a lot of things in my game,” he asserts. “I would like to stay in the Top 30 in the next few years. That would be good.”

But first, Sela will be back on court to see if he can pull off another upset against defending champion Spain in September’s Davis Cup semi-finals. And with ‘Dudi, King of Israel’, on its side, anything is possible for the tennis underdogs.

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