Tennis / Davis Cup / Safin Punctures Israel's Bubble

For several days now Israelis have been walking around the vicinity of Yad Eliahu with a strange feeling of euphoria: The "Nokia Arena" looks like a true sports complex, the Russian team landed without its best players, Dudi Sela returned from Wimbledon with the knowledge that he is capable of earning two victories for Israel on his own, Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich have always been a sure point. And, hey, we beat Sweden.

Advancing to the Davis Cup semis has never looked so realistic. Israel has never been so close to being one of the four best tennis teams in the world.

Russia's Marat Safin, however, brought everybody back to earth during yesterday's press conference ahead of this weekend's tie. "With all due respect to Israel's victory over Sweden, the Swedes were playing without (Robin) Soderling, while (Thomas) Johansson [barely showed up]," he declared. "So everyone knows how you advanced to the quarterfinal. I have no problem with it. It's a matter of luck. You could have drawn Spain or a squad with two players in the top 100, and then the whole story would have been different. You're only in the quarterfinal thanks to a good draw."

No doubt Safin, who plans to retire after this year, knows a thing or two about psychological warfare. Moreover, on the court he has proven during the last two days of practice that he is in excellent condition, despite the word in the local press about being out of shape and the fact that he dropped to number 60 in the world this week.

"Playing that kind of tennis, he plans to retire at age 30? Then what?" wondered a member of the Russian delegation.

Shamil Tarpischev, the Russian team captain, is expected to insert Safin - a former world number one - not only in the doubles but also on Sunday in the singles. Igor Kunitsyn will replace Dmitry Tursunov, who withdrew yesterday, and could also end up playing doubles. Kunitsyn, ranked 35 in the world, has only played one Davis Cup match previously. In last year's semifinal against Argentina, he partnered Tursunov in the doubles and came back from two sets down against Guillermo Canas and David Nalbandian to keep Russia alive in the tie. They eventually lost 3-2 to the hosts.

Needed: the old AndYoni chemistry

Kunitsyn will join Safin, Igor Andreev and Mikhail Youzhny for the tie.

Because Sela could beat any of the Russians on any given day and a victory by Harel Levy would be a bonus no one can count on, it's clear to the Israeli squad that if it wants to make history it will have to eke out a point from its doubles team of Ram and Erlich - despite their having gone separate ways this year.

"It's hard getting used to the court in Nokia, but I think it will be good and we'll earn the point we need," said Ram yesterday. "It's fun to practice with Yoni - the chemistry came back very quickly."

However, as much as they try to hide it, the chemistry will never quite return to what it once was. The big blowup, the publicized breakup and the experience of making a comeback for the dear flag were visible from a distance during the duo's practice yesterday. They opened the day in the stadium, hit around a bit with coach Noam Bar, and held a scrimmage with Noam Okun and Amir Hadad. There was talk and laughter, but mostly it happened with others and not with each other.

To cooperate in such an important tie when you don't get along with the guy next to you will be a difficult, yet fascinating mission. "It will be a close match against any duo that plays us," said Erlich. "Kunitsyn is the most experienced among them in doubles. Safin and Youzhny are powerful doubles players. We expect an attractive match, and I hope we'll manage to replicate on Saturday what we have done until now."

Ram and Erlich back together after a year - what people will do to make history.