Israel's Tennis Team Forced to Play 'Home-court' Davis Cup Qualifier in Florida

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Israel team captain Eyal Ran (right) gestures as he speaks during a news conference as Jonathan Erlich (left) and Andy Ram (center) listen in Sunrise, FL. Sept. 9, 2014.Credit: AP

AP - Andy Ram didn't hide his frustration.

He wanted to spend this weekend playing tennis for his country inside an arena in Tel Aviv, surrounded by 11,000 fellow Israelis in the stands for a critical Davis Cup tie against Argentina.

Instead, he is 6,500 miles from home.

"Unfortunately," Ram said, "we're here."

The aforementioned "here" is a South Florida suburb about 35 miles north of Miami, the spot chosen to host the Argentina-Israel matches that were displaced because of a war that raged until last month. The World Group playoff matchup will take place at the Sunrise Tennis Club, an outdoor hard-court facility.

"There's many emotions," Israeli doubles player Jonathan Erlich said. "We need to put all these emotions on the side when we go out on the court."

The International Tennis Federation told the Israelis last month that the match had to be moved, then held up that decision after a subsequent appeal that left what would have been the "home" team displeased.

"Blame the ITF," Ram said.

Over 50 days, more than 2,200 people - most of them Palestinians - were killed in the war, the third round of fighting since Hamas seized power in Gaza.

Given the uncertainty about safety, the ITF ordered a new host site while acknowledging the war was slowing down. Israel's appeal to postpone the match to elsewhere in the nation was denied, and South Florida soon became the agreed-upon destination.

"It is always a very difficult decision for the ITF to take away choice of ground in Davis Cup," ITF President Ricci Bitti said when the decision was announced.

The Israelis still aren't happy about it, even though the sizable Jewish population in South Florida could provide a home-court advantage of sorts this weekend.

"That's why we brought the Davis Cup here. That's one of the reasons," Ram said. "The Jewish community is big, the crowd is going to be on our side, and it's the closest we can feel at home."

Then again, the Miami area also has plenty of Latin influence, so Argentina's players will likely hear a few cries of "vamos!" over the weekend, as well. And with Leonardo Mayer - a winner on the ATP Tour earlier this year and now the 25th-ranked player in the world - leading their side, the Argentines would be considered favorites anyway.

"I'm not going to get involved in the decisions of the international federation," Argentina captain Martin Jaite said. "Definitely, for a team to lose their local advantage is a disadvantage."

Jaite, a former top-10 singles player, is Jewish but said his faith didn't leave him feeling torn this weekend.

"I'm the captain of the Argentinian team," Jaite said. "I don't have any conflictions or emotions. I'm representing Argentina."

This will not be the first time an Israeli match in Davis Cup play has been held amid controversy. Sweden elected to host Israel in 2009 without any fans present, citing a fear of protests.

The Swedes were fined for that decision. They also wound up losing 3-2.

For now, the air strikes over Israel and Gaza have stopped. Ram said he believes tensions have subsided to the point where the Davis Cup tie could have been played as originally scheduled without incident.

"Right now, I think we could host the Olympics, not only the Davis Cup," Ram said. "It looks so peaceful now in Israel, walking the streets."

Erlich brought some members of his family to the United States from their Israeli home in late July when the airstrikes were particularly intense. Dudi Sela, the team's top singles player, has an app on his phone alerting him when air raid sirens are blaring at home.

"It's not easy," Sela said.

A win this weekend would land the Israelis back in the World Group next year. When play starts Friday, they say their focus will be on the competition.

"We were not happy to lose the home advantage," Israel captain Eyal Ran said. "It's already behind us now. Right now, this is a home away from home."

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