March 3, 2010

Dudi Sela

(info about Dudi Sela)

A flame of Israel

Thomas Kieller

Dudi Sela: Serving.

Intense and naturally combative, Dudi gives everything he has on each point. Truly a great runner, he returns skilfully the shots of his adversary. His relentlessness to recover lost balls allows him to do spectacular racket shots. All the movements that he generates during the exchanges grant him the support of the crowd. His Israeli supporters are unconditionally behind him and create sometimes an atmosphere that one cannot forget. Before reaching high standards, he encountered his part of difficulties mostly because of an injury to his arm which plunged him quite far in the ATP ranking. Perseverant, he did not quit his sport despite some hesitations. His hard training and solitary trips pushed him back on the right track. One thing leading to another, he came back with confidence. We can remember his marathon match of five hours during the Davis Cup where he faced in an explosive confrontation Fernando Gonzalez who surely remembers it. In this incredible match, he triumphed allowing his country to eliminate Chile. A sign that Dudi still offer some intense and captivating matches.

The interview took place on August 9, 2009 at 16:35 in the press conference room of the Rogers Cup tennis tournament of the ATP World Tour in Montreal, Canada. It was done in English.

Prelude – Dudi arrives in the press conference room which is for the occasion completely empty. He takes a seat in one of the numerous chairs. He is quite relaxed after his afternoon practice session.

Development of a tennis player in Israel

Thomas Kieller: Since you turned pro in 2002, you have travelled a lot and obviously you have seen many countries. Besides, you grew up in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Did this situation have an impact on you as a citizen and for your development as a young tennis player?

Dudi Sela: Yes, it had an impact. I was living in Kiryat Shmonna in the north of Israel. Over there, there were some problems at that time. Sometimes, I had to go to the shelters between practices. I heard the noises of the bombs. It was not the best atmosphere to grow up in but I think I managed well. My brother, Ofer, was playing tennis before I, so he helped me by giving me advice about which way is the best to take.

Thomas: There was less trouble in Kiryat Shmonna than in Tel Aviv?

Dudi: Oh no, there was more trouble there compared to the center of Tel Aviv, but you get you used to it. From time to time, I heard some bombs and I went to the shelter. It sounds not the best but when you are there, I mean, you get used to it. You go to the shelters when necessary and you try to practice when there are no bombs.

Thomas (is surprise by Dudi’s answer): Wow! A person can really adapt to this kind of situation?

Dudi: Yeah!

Thomas: So, you grew up in the small city of Kiryat Shmonna, just on the Israel-Lebanon border. It’s there where you started playing tennis.

Dudi: Yes, I was there with my family and I practiced there until I was twelve years old. At that age, I was one of the best in Israel. So, I moved to Tel Aviv where there were a lot of places for practice. I had better coaches and a good atmosphere. All the family moved there. My brother, who was also a tennis player and ranked around 200th in the world, moved also to Tel Aviv. It was better for both of us.

Thomas: In Israel, are there a lot of facilities for tennis such as buildings for training or different types of court (grass, clay and hard courts) in order for you to practice on different surfaces?

Dudi: I think we have very good conditions. The weather is very good and we have good facilities (gyms and stuff like that). We have very good courts and a lot of them, but we only have hard courts. We don’t have any other surfaces. Nevertheless, I think we manage. Perhaps, we do not have the best level of coaches if we compare to Europe or the United States.

Thomas: Is there a good system of development for the young players in Israel with a good tennis organization like a federation and schools to learn tennis?

Dudi: Yes, I had a pretty good program for me until I was 14 years old. At that age, I was not getting the best because I was a little bit better than the other players. So, I had to move. With my family, we moved to Austria where I practiced tennis for two years until I was 16 and a half with Günter Breznik who was the coach of Amos Mansdorf, another Israeli player. Those two years helped me a lot.

Thomas: The situation in Israel is it different if we compare to 15 years ago?

Dudi: For me, there is no difference. Both sides are not doing the best. The Israeli have their problems and the Palestine people have theirs. Hopefully, it will get better and peace will come.

Thomas: And what about tennis, is it better for the current players to develop?

Dudi: I think it is the same... Well, 15 years ago, there were around 20 Jewish players in the top 300. Now, there are 3 in the top 300 or around that. So, I have to say it was better. The main reason is there are more people playing soccer and basketball in Israel rather than tennis.

Thomas: Yes, in the top 1,000 players of the ATP world ranking, there are just four players from Israel: yourself ranked 34th, Harel Lavy ranked 149th, Noam Okun ranked 340th and Amir Weintraub ranked 750th. Of course, you are now competing with all the players of the world. But when you were younger, as you said there was a lack of competition. To have more top players from your country, could it be a source of motivation?

Dudi: I would think so. If there were more players, it would be much better. In Israel, around 15 years ago, like I said there were 20 players like Amos Mansdorf, Gilad Bloom, Shahar Perkiss and Jonathan Erlich. If you see the other guys succeeding, you want to do the same. In a way, we push each other. It is why I think the Spanish are doing well like the French and some other countries who have good programs, good coaches and each player pushes the other one to his limit. In Israel, we don’t have all of that. It’s good but it’s not the best and I hope it will change. Soon, Harel Lavy and Noam Okun will retire. These guys know what has to be done to become a good player. Perhaps, they will make it better for the next generation.

Dudi’s family

Thomas: Before talking about your brother Ofer, let’s just talk about your parents, Michael and Anca. First of all, they came to Israel from Romania. Could you tell me why they left their country and when they arrived in Israel?

Dudi: At that time, it was tough for the Jewish people in Romania. So, they left that country and they arrived in Israel in 1970 where they had a big family there. My cousin had a business. So, my father started working with him and after that he became a bus driver. And that’s it, I think.

Thomas: Concerning tennis, did your parents insist… I mean insist might not be the right word. I should say, did they help you become a tennis player?

Dudi: You know when you are 11 years old or less there are some days you don’t want to practice. So, at that age, they did not care so much. However, when I was 12 and playing good, my father and my brother were pushing me a little bit more to go to the practice. However, they told me if I want to play tennis in the long run, I have to practice. On the other hand, if I didn’t want to be a tennis player, they simply told me don’t go. It was their way in telling me what to do. I think it’s a good way not to push too much. They did just the right way!

Thomas: Your brother Ofer was also a good tennis player, ranked in the top 200 players in the world. Now, he is 37 years old with a lot of experience behind his back and you are 24. Did your older brother have and has an impact on you concerning life and tennis?

Dudi: Yes, because when I was 14, I did not know what a good program was. So, he sent me to Austria and decided which junior tournament I should play in or which coach I should choose. Still now, he helps me. He will come to Montreal tomorrow.

Thomas: And now he is a tennis coach. Does he follow you a lot in your progress and does he give you advice?

Dudi: Yes, he helps me when I have to make big decisions or he gives me advice concerning the tournaments I should play. Also, he helps with my travelling and things related to this. He is my agent now. Besides that, he is coaching kids in Israel.

Dudi’s tennis development

Thomas: You did not have a straight evolution in the world ranking. In 2004, you were ranked 260th; in 2005: 171st; in 2006 you dropped to 240; in 2007 you were 66th and in 2008, you dropped again to 112th. I read somewhere that you even thought about quitting tennis, is that right?

Dudi: If I go back in time, I have to say that I was one of the best in the juniors and when I started playing professional, I reached quickly the 200th mark, but I stayed there for two to three years. And then, I reached 150th and I was doing well, until I got injured in the middle of a physical practice. When I came back after three months, it was very difficult. I was starting to lose against players ranked in the 400 and 500 positions. On that matter, I have another brother who lives in New York and I stayed there with him. When I dropped to the rank of 350, he told me to stop tennis. Ok, he does not like tennis too much. Ah ah ah! He offered me to work with him in the real state business in New York. I was thinking about this, but with time, I started playing better and I pushed harder during practice. Now, I’m glad I did not stop.

Thomas: So, it was an injury which almost stopped you?

Dudi: Yes, it was an injury to my elbow. I fell down and broke my left elbow and I was unable to play for three months. When I came back, I had still an inflammation. It was painful for at least six months. I dropped from 140th to 370th. Believe me, it was not the best thing.

Thomas: When you were injured, did your brother, family and coach, at that time, Yoram Menahem, help you think about this in order to make the good choice for you? You were quite young; I think if I’m right you were 22 years old.

Dudi: Yes, of course; my brother wanted me to continue playing but I did not enjoy it that much. At that point, I did not have any sponsor. I had nobody to support me, so it was tough. When you are 350th, you don’t earn a lot of money. Because of this, you have to travel alone. Nevertheless, when I was travelling in the United States, I got slowly my confidence back and I played better. It helps me now to think about this.

Thomas: You were talking about travelling alone. I want to know, is this a tough aspect about tennis?

Dudi: Yes, it is very difficult to travel without a coach or without a physical coach. It is completely different. You also play better and you feel better when you have somebody supporting you even when you don’t play. When you lose, you can practice better. So, it’s a big advantage to have a sponsor or somebody to play against.

Thomas: And now, you are ranked 34th in the world and you are still progressing. Are you proud of this?

Dudi: Yes! I changed a lot concerning my playing style. I’m physically in better shape and I play better. However, I have to improve much more, like my serve, my backhand and my forearm. My goal for 2009 is to stay in the top 50. So, it was a good year for me. In November and December, I will be off and I will practice more in order to improve my game for 2010.

Thomas: One day, there is a possibility that you surpass the best Israelite player ranked in tennis history Amos Mansdorf. In 1987, he was ranked 18th in the world.

Dudi: Yes and I’m glad that I’m in this position. I’m playing well with my style. Hopefully, I will pass him but this is not my objective. My main goal is to improve my tennis and see what I can be.

Thomas: So, you are not talking about retirement anymore?

Dudi (laughs): No, it’s a good life.

Thomas: Well said!