In August the most significant event of Julia Glushko's life occurred. Unfortunately, it wasn't a victory in a critical match, an assent to a top seed in the women's tennis rankings or winning a prestigious award. Rather, it was the news that Tzipi Obziler, the perennial second-best player on the Israeli national tennis team, was retiring.
Now, ready or not, Glushko - who has gotten by with some encouragement from her friends while appearing in just two marginal international tournaments - will have to stand alongside Shahar Peer and together shoulder the burden of leading the national squad.
"Even if you don't take the court to play now, the next time you will almost certainly play," team captain Lior Mor told Glushko during the women's team's recent loss against Estonia in the Federation Cup World Group II playoff.
Indeed, in less than two months, when Israel returns to its regional match-ups in the Europe-Africa region I, Glushko is expected to finally break out her unused tennis racket.
"I knew, irrespective of Tzipi's retirement, that my time would come," Glushko said. "I've been thinking about this moment and imagining it for quite a while now. I don't know how this will feel, but I think I'll have butterflies in my stomach."
"This is good pressure, something that I love," she said.
Glushko, who will soon turn 20, has not had an easy year. Her sponsor is long out of the picture and she travels to tournaments abroad without a coach by her side due to cash constraints. Victories were few and far between, and she failed to move up significantly in the rankings.
"When you fly abroad and you don't succeed [in these competitions], it's very frustrating," she said. "Thoughts start to go through your head, but you have to be mentally strong."
Early this year, Shlomo Tzoref volunteered to coach Glushko pro bono. "I understood that soon she will be number two [behind Peer], and if we do not support her than we'll have a huge void for the next Federation Cup, which we will pay for dearly," Tzuref said.
Since childhood, Glushko, who immigrated to Israel from Ukraine when she was eight years old, has been recognized as possessing extraordinary talent. At 17 her Junior ranking was 10th in the world.
"Back then, everything seemed to be coming up roses," she said. "I competed in Grand Slam tournaments and I stayed at the fanciest hotels the world has to offer. I was living a fantasy, and once I reached adulthood nobody took into account that I came up from the youth division."
"People came to play for money and they were ready to kill me [on the court]," Glushko said. "During the first few months I didn't understand what was going on. The transition was much harder than I had anticipated."
Nearly two years later Glushko is still searching for a way to the top. "From the perspective of level of play and technique, she is in the top 100 in the world without breaking a sweat," Tzoref said. "But she is not consistent in her concentration. In addition, she is suffering from fatigue that accumulated over the years. She did not get enough rest and she was not developed for a long-term career, and now she is paying the price. I came in so I could build something better for her."
Just recently the Israel Tennis Association realized that no matter how talented Glushko is she needs a full-time coach. The ITA allocated NIS 50,000 so that she and Tzoref could participate in tournaments in the United States.
"That was a very difficult two and a half months," Glushko said. She had hoped to rack up enough points to win a spot in the qualifying round for the 2010 Australian Open. "It didn't go as planned."
"I didn't play the way I expected and I didn't win matches," she said. "Perhaps it's mental, a matter of confidence. I didn't succeed, but that won't break me."
The disappointing U.S. tour pushed her down to the 323 ranked player. She returned to Israel and took a 10-day break from tennis.
As Glushko prepares to take the court today in the Israel Tennis Championships she can take solace in a season during which she has trained harder, found a new psychologist and changed her hairstyle.
"I had thought about changing my hair color to black but I never got around to it," the blonde prodigy admitted. "I walked into a hairdresser's owned by an Israeli guy in New Jersey just to say hello, and I decided to dye my hair."
Tennis officials in Israel hope the new look will be the good-luck charm needed for Glushko to provide a much-needed boost to the national team in time for the Federation Cup in February. "I know what I'm worth and I believe in myself," she said. "I'm talented, I have a lot of pluses and I just need to put everything together."
"She needs to drop ten kilograms and to regain that spark in her eye," Tzoref said. "Leave the rest to me. If she does that and the coach travels with her I guarantee that by the end of next year she will be in the top 100 in the world. Easily."
"By the time I retire, I want to look back and know that I did all I could," Glushko said.
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