Two years ago, when he was ranked 278th in the world, when he wasn't a part of Israel's Davis Cup tennis team and not yet on the public's radar screen, Amir Weintraub upset Dudi Sela, the country's top male player, and was crowned Israel's champion.
Weintraub says with a smile he has made a little progress since then, noting that he is no longer anonymous and that people outside of Ramat Hasharon recognize him. "It's heartwarming and shows people appreciate what I am doing," says the 26-year-old. "I pass by athletes, both in soccer and basketball, and everyone knows who I am. It's a good feeling, knowing that I'm a legitimate athlete."
On Saturday, armed with that legitimacy, experience and a slew of impressive wins that put Israel back in the Davis Cup World Group, Weintraub again defeated the favored Sela and won his second Israel Open championship.
He says the victory is important yet does little for his standing on the world tennis tour, where he is ranked 194th. "I'm happy to be champion of Israel, but I'll be happier to win on the tour," he says. "Right now that's more important to me."
The faith and confidence he gained on Saturday follow other positive developments Weintraub has experienced lately. The Israel Tennis Association has funded his trips since Israel advanced to the World Group, and a sponsorship deal with Israel Discount Bank allows him to start the year on solid financial ground he has rarely known before.
On Thursday he will pack his bags and head Down Under ahead of the Australian Open. In contrast to the past, his good friend and coach Ram Tepper will join him. Weintraub says the hardest part about tennis is the loneliness for eight months. When there is someone else around, it looks different, he stresses. "When you get tired, when it's hard and you get sick of it, there is someone else to be with you, and you don't have to go through this torturous process alone," he says. "Someone goes through it with you, and it gives you a lot of strength."
Weintraub has a bigger team than ever to help him make a significant jump in the rankings and get his first Grand Slam draw. He has Shlomo Tzoref, his head coach; Oren Bar Nur, his fitness coach; and Amos Meitar, a sports psychologist.
"I'm no longer a kid," says Weintraub. "I won't have resources my whole life, and this year I have the conditions to succeed, so now is really my opportunity."
Weintraub speaks of the hardships he had to go through when he was toward the bottom of the top 300. Now that he is inside the top 200, the conditions are a little better, he says. "The hotels are little prettier, and I fly to Grand Slams, so I have some really nice competitions during the year, but most are flights to Uzbekistan and India, and it's no big feast," he says. "I can't stop playing. I have to accumulate as many points as possible to move up the rankings, so I have no rest. I will keep going this year until mid-December, and the new year starts this weekend. It's been years since I could rest. I still don't earn enough to say 'wow,' but right now the money isn't driving me. If it did, I would have quit by now."
The rising star says there is a big difference between playing in the Davis Cup, where he was backed by a team and four doctors, and playing the minor tournaments, where he has to do everything alone. "At the Davis Cup, I had results no one expected, including myself," he says.
His experience on the tour has matured Weintraub's outlook. "Whether I win or lose, I have to know how to enjoy the journey." He says he used to dislike making another trip to places like Uzbekistan, but how he sees the travel as an experience and not something bad. He says he's learned to take things in proportion.
"Although I was very happy when I won the Israel Open, I didn't jump for joy like the first time," he says. "It's fun, a thrill and it's a good thing, but I was a lot calmer than that time."
The newly crowned champion is cautious when setting goals for this year. He says that while he would naturally love to be in the top 100, there is no point in focusing on a number. "I want to go through this year with a smile," he suggests instead. "Now I'm smiling, and I'll be happy to finish next year and still be with the same smile. For me, it will be a sign that I made progress and that everything went the way I wanted. If Federer says that he needs to improve, then we all need to. Besides faith and hard work, I have to show more consistency. It happens that I beat the number 120 in the world and then the next day lost to the 250th ranked player. I'm getting better all the time, but I want more, not to stop here. I'll do anything to break out."
Tzoref, his head coach, says 2013 is a critical year for Weintraub. "He may be 26, but because he didn't play in too many tournaments and had a break in the middle, physically and mentally he is not worn out, said the coach. "Amir is hungry, and he has the motivation and the mental reserves to play many more years."
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