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In a Tiny Stadium in New York City, I Found Israel’s Next Big Tennis Star

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Yshai Oliel is a complete player. Forehand with plenty of spin, stable two-handed backhand, good volley.
Yshai Oliel is a complete player. Forehand with plenty of spin, stable two-handed backhand, good volley.Credit: Israel Tennis Association

NEW YORK – At Arthur Ashe Stadium, the women’s quarterfinal is just getting under way. Angelique Kerber versus Roberta Vinci, the player who stunned Serena Williams in last year’s semifinal. She’s a rather unexciting player who hasn’t been able to replicate that kind of hysteria, but that one victory made her a “story” in New York. And in this story, Vinci’s role is clear: Contrary to expectations, she is supposed to overcome all obstacles and reach the final.

But Vinci is facing Kerber. And the German is a better player. Much better. Ranked second in the world, she won the Australian Open this year and reached the Wimbledon final. So the American catharsis will have to wait.  Still, this is the big game of the moment.

But I’m not racing over there. I’m not headed there at all. Instead I’m on my way over to Court 14, on the far side of the compound. It’s a tiny stadium with three spectator benches on each side. The judge isn’t even hooked up to a loudspeaker. Once in a while she has to shout to be heard over some noise. Even when there’s no noise, she still shouts.

And while Vinci and Kerber are writing their part of the big story, Israeli player Yshai Oliel is playing his small part against an Australian guy named Alex de Minaur. And this De Minaur, who reached the last Wimbledon final, looks to be quite a player. Very athletic, very quick and very aggressive – he gets to the balls early, shaving precious fractions of a seconds off Oliel’s potential reaction time. He plays like he knows that it’s his job to win, that there’s no other possible outcome, with all due respect to ... what’s his name.

As for Oliel, sure, he’s heard of De Minaur, but this is the first time he’s playing against him. And while we in the stands have had the story framed for us before the game – No. 2-ranked player against an unseeded player, Wimbledon finalist versus that kid from Ramle – Oliel sets about writing a wholly different story on the court.

“Whatever, anything’s fine,” Oliel answers shyly when a nice girl asks him before the game what color drink to bring him. He hasn’t developed any celebrity mannerisms, he doesn’t feel like a star. In his mind, he’s still just a kid from Ramle who plays tennis. A kid from Ramle whose parents are on tenterhooks back in Israel, waiting to see how the match turns out.

A kid whose tennis career has been funded for 10 years by philanthropist David Cooper because his family couldn’t afford it – (“I hope to pay him back”). A kid who cut his long tresses, his trademark, because his sister told him it was getting to be too much, that it was time “to be a man.” A kid who donated his hair to kids going through cancer treatment.

A shy, unassuming kid who doesn’t talk much, who is making his first-ever visit to New York. A kid who’s really psyched because he bought a really cool smartphone yesterday in Manhattan. A kid who admires Rafa Nadal because he’s a fighter; who’s a Beitar Jerusalem fan; who barely has time for studying because he’s going to be a tennis player. A real tennis player.

We hear that Kerber took the first set 7-5. Great. But here in our story, on Court 14, the Australian hero who took the first set 6-4 realizes now that the kid he’s facing is the real thing. And this real thing doesn’t buy the story from the booklet that’s been handed out to the press. He’s not fazed by De Minaur’s ranking on the electronic scoreboard, by his aggressiveness or by his star presence. Oliel is thinking about tennis. And nothing else.

He keeps talking to himself, urging himself on, working on himself. All he sees on the other side of the court is some guy who’s expected to win.

Oliel is a complete player. Forehand with plenty of spin, stable two-handed backhand, good volley. He’s a backline player, a fighter, but with a technique that enables him to show flashes of brilliance. He makes short shrift of “sitters” (balls that “sit” in the middle of the court); when he has to go to the net, he shows a beautiful touch; he moves splendidly on the court and effectively reads situations. De Minaur is starting to recognize all this too. And as soon as his self-confidence is shaken, the tide starts to turn.

Tuesday at the U.S. Open: Kerber will beat Vinci; Gael Monfils will beat Lucas Pouille in a brilliant display of tennis; later Caroline Wozniacki will crush Anastasija Sevastova; and at night Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1. , will walk all over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who will withdraw from the match in the third set.

But despite all these big names, Court 14 was where the really big thing happened. After two hours and several more minutes of a superb, exhausting, up-and-down tennis battle, Yshai Oliel, a really nice Israeli kid, lifts his hands to the sky, lets out a victory roar, is congratulated at the net by the Australian and wearily sits down on his chair next to the big cooler filled with all the colorful drinks for which he didn’t care to express any preference.

Sure, Oliel is happy, he played well, but this is just the beginning, only the second round, there is still much work to be done, and he is focused solely on the next game, Thursday, against 13th-ranked player Nicola Kuhn of Spain. So forget all the usual clichés. The story that Oliel just wrote on the court is worth more than any of them.

Addendum: Oliel lost Thursday's third-round game against Kuhn in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2.

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