Tennis / Davis Cup / Worlds Apart

While the Russians are surprisingly calm, the Israelis are closing the shutters. Tactics or hysteria?

The hours pass, the first serve draws closer, and the Yad Eliahu stadium is dressing up for this weekend's Davis Cup quarterfinal between Israel and Russia.

Israel's inexperience at this level is beginning to show, which can only be worrying ahead of this crucial tie against powerful opposition. While the Russians emanate calm, allow access to their practices and play their cards in the psychological warfare that inevitably precedes such sporting events, their hosts appear more pressured than ever.

Yesterday's practice was held behind locked doors, and the players refused to cooperate with the media - to be interviewed or even photographed - as if deserting the psychological battleground.

It's all part of captain Eyal Ran's tactic of forcing the players to focus solely on the job at hand, but the move broadcasts panic and frustrates those surrounding the team - the Israel Tennis Association, which is trying to market the event and sell the remaining tickets, and the media, whose job it is to rally support and arouse interest.

The picture on the Russian side could not be more different. Team captain Shamil Tarpischev decided to give his two veteran players, Marat Safin and Mikhail Youzhny, the morning off from training yesterday so they could spend some time on the beach.

Boris Sobkin, Youzhny's Jewish coach, is convinced the Russians will have a hard time on Yad Eliahu's indoor hard court. "Ram and Erlich are traditionally strong, but they're not the only ones capable of earning points for the Israelis. We must not forget that Israel's top player, Dudi Sela, is now ranked 33 in the world. That means he's the second best player in the tie, after Igor Andreev (24). It will be close."

Another famous Jewish Russian tennis coach, Vladimir Kamelzon, defines the atmosphere in the Russian camp as "wonderful." "We are eating together, training together, and all in a pleasant, mutually supportive atmosphere. We even played soccer together on the beach," he said.

And what about the Israelis? They're so anxious that they don't even answer the telephone.