The Israel Tennis Centers has announced it will award a cash prize of NIS 10,000 to each of the first five female Arab Israelis to earn a place on the Women's Tennis Association's (WTA-Tour) international rankings.
Israel Tennis Centers was founded over 25 years ago by British immigrant Freddie Krivine, now 83, along with South African immigrant and Israel Prize winner Dr. Ian Froman, and four others, to provide subsidized tennis education for all Israelis, regardless of socioeconomic standing. Since becoming director of women's tennis 20 years ago, Krivine has helped catapult the Israeli women's tennis team into the 13th spot in the Federation Cup.
In 1998 Krivine cofounded the Centers' Committee for Coexistence and Equal Opportunity, which provides venues for Israeli-Arab children to learn tennis, either together with Jewish peers or in separate classes. Today, Israel Tennis Centers provides tennis education to Jewish and Arab children in Caesaria, Haifa, Jaffa, Tiberias, Karmiel, Kibbutz Bahan, and Jisser el-Zarka. There are currently 1,100 Muslim Arab, Christian Arab and Druze children involved in the centers' tennis and physical-education programs.
Funding for the newly established prize is provided by philanthropist and retired real estate developer Leonard Phillips of Medmenham, England, who has been sponsoring tennis tournaments in Israel for 25 years.
Phillips said that his motivation to support Israeli women tennis players, and now Arab-Israeli women in particular, was inspired by Krivine. "The boys have always had plenty of sponsorship in Israel, in terms of sport," he said. "We thought it would be good to provide the sponsorship for young girls. Instead of being behind the kitchen sink, they should be behind a tennis racket."
"Every Briton in his heart of hearts is culturally tainted by his love for the underdog," Krivine joked. "The girls were the underdog, so I went to help them, and luckily we've had great success. All the [financial] support for the girls comes from Britain, and the support for the boys comes from the U.S. and Canada."
Ten Israeli women, all Jewish, are currently ranked by the WTA-Tour. The first Israeli to achieve the distinction was Ilana Berger, who made the list in 1986. The highest-ranked Israeli, as of last week, is Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi, who ranks 18th out of approximately 1,200 women.
Although a spokesman of WTA-Tour said women have, in the past, represented Arab countries in international tournaments, the number of high-level female Arab players is low. Krivine said one of his goals is to have Israel be the first country to be represented internationally by a high-ranked female Arab.
So far, Krivine reported, recruiting Arab girls to train seriously in tennis has not been difficult, despite the short-skirted uniforms which might offend more conservative members of Muslim society. "If you come across a girl whose parents are very religious, there is no way she'll play tennis, not in a short skirt," says Krivine.
They have warned the families, however, that with increased success, the pressure might mount. Shahar Perkis, director of the Haifa Tennis Center and a former Davis Cup player, says, "We've had no problems finding girls [to participate in tennis lessons]. But if they do well at the international level [and attract attention], then maybe somebody in the Muslim world will have something to say about it."
The WTA Rankings is the worldwide computer ranking for women's professional tennis. To appear on the rankings, a player must compete in at least three valid tournaments within a 52-week period. Her rank number is determined on a rolling basis by her cumulative achievements from her last 17 tournaments.
Krivine and Perkis say that currently three Israeli girls show enough promise that, with enough dedication, they might win the new prize within the next one to three years. Most of their hopes are pinned on Nadine Fahoum, 14, of Haifa, who is ranked third in Israel for her age category and recently represented Israel in the Les Petits Aces Junior tournament in France.
Two others who show potential are Ruan Zubidat, a 14-year-old Bedouin from outside Tivon, and Sireen Muchsen, 13, of Caesaria, who qualified last week to play in the Israeli Junior nationals.
Krivine: "I hope all three of them will come through like tigresses. But you have to be tremendously motivated ... they must be totally obsessed about it and jetison everything else in their lives, and focus completely on fitness and tennis. It's a full-time job from the age of 12 or 13 if you want to be a great tennis player."