In an extraordinary, against-the-odds comeback victory last weekend that was played in front of capacity crowds at Tel Aviv’s Shlomo Group Arena, Israel edged Japan 3-2 in a crucial Davis Cup world group one series.
The reward for that epic effort is Israel’s entry into a play-off series, scheduled for February, that will determine which nations take part in the 2024 Davis Cup finals group stage. The last time that Israel competed in the Davis Cup finals – the annual world cup tournament in men’s tennis – was in 2013.
On paper, Japan’s squad was much stronger than Israel’s, and the Israelis got off to a poor start when 470-ranked Yshai Oliel lost 4-6 6-7 (5-7) to his 146-ranked opponent Sho Shimabukuro, in the opening singles rubber.
Israel ended the first day on even terms with Japan when Daniel Cukierman, ranked at 372, bounced back from a set down to outlast 193-ranked Shintaro Mochizuki 1-6 7-6 (7-5) 6-2.
Stress levels among the Israeli players, coaches and fans rose midway through the morning of the second day, when Israel’s Cukierman and Edan Leshem lost the doubles rubber 2-6 6-7 (2-7) versus Japanese doubles specialists Ben McLachlan and Kaito Uesugi.
Down but not out, Israel faced a scenario where they had to win the remaining two reverse singles rubbers. Cukierman found himself a set down yet again, but held his nerve under immense pressure to win the next two sets 6-1 7-6 (7-4) against Shimabukuro.
Then it all came down to Oliel, who had maintained a positive mindset since his loss the day before, saying at a press conference, “It’s a new day, and I hope I can win.”
Trailing 2-6 against Mochizuki, he won a tough second set 7-5, and then rode a wave of renewed confidence, buoyed by the vocal home crowd, to break Mochizuki’s serve three times in the deciding set, winning it easily by 6-0.
Emotional scenes followed, with the Israeli players joining their captain Jonathan Erlich and support staff in a huddle.
The series win over Japan felt even sweeter, given that this time last year, also in Tel Aviv, Israel had the same opportunity to earn a spot in the finals group stage qualifiers, but fell 1-3 to a strong Czechia squad.
Forced back to the drawing board, the Israelis won a hard-fought series versus Latvia 3-2 this February in Riga, enabling them to remain in group one.
In a message on its Facebook site following the upset win over Japan, the Israel Tennis Association described it as a victory “for all of us”.
“The Israel Tennis Association would like to thank the thousands of spectators who filled the arena, and pushed the team non-stop to a big victory over Japan. Without you, it would not have been possible.”
Meanwhile, the same indoor stadium will host, from November 5-11, the second annual ATP Tour Tel Aviv Watergen Open, which Novak Djokovic won last year.