Tennis / Profile

Dudi Sela Working His Way Back Up the Ladder

Four years after peaking at number 29, Israeli tennis star feels primed for another run.

Six in the afternoon at the Ramat Hasharon Tennis Center. Promising teens, as well as amateurs and more mature players, are trying their luck on various courts as they try to make worthy returns to their coaches on the other side of the net. In the paths between the courts Dudi Sea is wandering in contentedness. Sporting a tennis hat and a huge practice bag, the Israeli tennis star chases after Mocha, a brightly-colored 11-year-old dog, and tries to bridle the dog with a leash to keep it from running around.

Sela, 28, a native of Kiryat Shmona, was about Mocha’s age (in man-years, of course) when he first played at the Ramat Hasharon complex. He started the 2013 season, which is nearing its end, outside the top 100 in the world − a ranking that prevented him from qualifying directly for ATP tournaments. Instead, he had to make his way through the qualifiers.

Sela decided to compromise on the Challenger tournaments, which are smaller and less profitable, to amass rankings points and improve his position down the line.

“Playing in the ATP qualifiers means more expenses and a greater danger regarding your ranking,” he explains. “At the start of the season I didn’t feel good enough with my game, and wanted in particularly to situate myself in a position that would allow me to start each tournament next year in [the first round].”

Last month, Sela and Israel’s Davis Cup team arrived in Belgium in the hope of staying in the World Group. However Sela, the leading singles player, struggled on the clay and lost both his matches.

“From my perspective it was a catastrophe,” he recalls. “I got on the clay, a surface that I had not played on for two years, and felt really uncomfortable, as if they had put me on an ice rink. Given my style of play, in which I need to run a lot and feel comfortable with my movement, it was very significant. During that period there were no tournaments on clay, and I had no way of preparing.

"In the Davis Cup there is always pressure. I know that in every match I have to contribute points to the national team. It doesn’t matter who my opponent is. It’s what I feel inside. I don’t play loosely like on the tour, but rather in a more controlled manner and without taking chances. I was disappointed with myself because I lost to a player who had never beaten me, someone I would have considered a relatively easy opponent had I drawn him on tour.”

The national team lost the tie and found itself outside the World Group, inviting a battalion of critics to rag on Sela and his teammates. “I read unfair things, analysis that wasn’t related to the sport and written by people who don’t understand the game,” he says with palpable anger.

“In soccer terms, it was like a commentator asking how the national team didn’t take the field with a 4-4-4 arrangement or why Messi didn’t play in defense. As someone for whom representing the country is priority number one, losing in the Davis Cup is much worse. I felt hurt.”

Sela was supposed to participate in important tournaments in Bangkok and Tokyo, but after returning from Belgium he passed up on the Far East to clear his thoughts and sharpen his connection with the racket. Three weeks ago, he packed his bags and departed for the Challenger tournament in Tashkent. He won the tournament, and his ranking soared to number 68 in the world, his highest ranking since May 2012.

“I’m riding the wave again,” he says. “It's about the ranking I was hoping for when I decided to focus on the Challengers. From the start of next year I will be able to qualify directly for seven or eight ATP tournaments.”

After a year and a half of spending overseas tournaments with his coach, Yoav Ben Zvi, Sela decided to break up the intensive partnership. Over the past year he traveled alone, with the Internet, books and the WhatsApp. In Israel, he gets training from Harel Levy, the former player who coaches him almost daily.

“He’s been helping me for over 10 years, since I started playing on the tour,” says Sela. “He and Noam Okun always gave me tips because there is always something to improve − my running, service, high balls, backhand or forehand, the little things.”

Sela says he has changed the way he trains over the past two years. “I work more specifically on what needs improvement,” he says. “I am more experienced and understand what to do on the court and how to win the point. Once upon a time, I would take the court with a freestyle manner, relying on sudden thoughts. Today, I still do a little magic − but with a game plan.”

Sela was considered a promising talent for many years, despite his modest size. He compensates for his height (1.75 meters) with a slew of improvisations, a variety of slams and quickness. Four years ago he managed − alongside leading the national team to the World Group − to reach number 29 in the world. Now he strives to return to his peak and perhaps even top it.

“Today I am a much better player than four or five years ago. I feel good and think I still have something to give, that I can have a breakout. There are players who only break into the Top 30 at age 28. You need this 'click' in tennis. I have to worry mainly about the physical aspect, to come prepared and always be there, consistent on every point and in every match. This year I actually did it well.”

After a short break with his girlfriend of the last 10 years and a training camp with colleagues from Russia − including Alex Bogomolov, Mikhail Youzhny, Nikolai Davydenko and their partners − Sela will open another season crammed with flights. “Of course it’s hard and tiring sometimes, but it’s a living,” he says with a smile. “I see friends working in an office and I’m cool, appreciate what I do and don’t regret anything.”

Sela is due to become a new father in March. “It’s exciting and I’m waiting,” he says. “I will take them with me on trips.”

While Sela looks forward to expanding his family, he is less optimistic about the future of Israeli tennis. “There’s an infrastructure and good coaches, but once I felt that more kids played here,” he laments. “There aren’t guilt feelings in other countries, and when a kid grows up he moves to another coach who is more appropriate for him. We take things more personally, and the kids stay with the same coach. Add to this the rivalry between the Israel Tennis Center and the Israel Tennis Association, and that’s how young players get lost.”

Between hitting with Levy and fitness training in Herzliya, Sela leans on the windowsill of the snack bar in the Tennis center that fostered him. Next year, besides becoming a father, he hopes to return to the Top 50 in the world and to win his first ATP tournament. “It’s been my dream for quite a long time,” he adds. “Players worse than me have already done it.”

AP