Tennis / Israel Stuns Favorite Italy 3-0 to Make World Group Playoffs

Israel stunned Italy over the weekend as it took an unassailable 3-0 lead in their Europe/Africa Zone Group 1 second-round tie to advance to the World Group playoffs.

Doubles player Andy Ram had been sure ahead of the tie that Israel would advance. It wasn't quite clear why - Israel was up against a team that has five players in the top 100 in the world. All Israel had to offer, on the other hand, was its successful doubles pairing of Ram and Yoni Erlich, together with two singles players, Dudi Sela and Noam Okun, who have failed to break into the big time.

Yesterday Ram turned up at the Ramat Hasharon Tennis Center with all the pressure on him, but contrary to expectations, it was to finish off the tie, not to keep the team's chances alive ahead of the reverse singles.

After Sela and Okun shocked the Italians with wins in the singles on Friday, Ram and Erlich responded to the pressure with a straight sets win over Daniele Bracialli and Potito Starace.

Sela, who began his season well with an appearance in the second round at the Australian Open and easy wins against Luxembourg in the previous round of the Davis Cup, wasn't expected to stand a chance against Andreas Seppi.

But the 22-year-old, ranked over 100 places below Seppi, took the first two sets 6-3, 7-5 before muscle cramps allowed the Italian back into the match. Seppi took the next two sets 6-1, 6-3 and led 3-1 in the fifth and decisive set. But with the Ramat Hasharon crowd behind him, Sela took five straight games for the first five-set win of his career and a place in Israel's Davis Cup pantheon of impossible victories.

Noam Okun had an easier time against Davis Cup debutante Simone Bolelli. Okun, who always raises his game in the Davis Cup, put in a near-perfect performance as he beat Bolelli 7-5, 7-5, 6-3.

"It's the first time in a long while that I have gone into a game with Israel ahead 1-0 and that made things a lot easier for me," said Okun.

"I tried everything," said Bolelli. "He was simply perfect."

With the match for the taking, Ram and Erlich showed their class against an Italian duo that had never played together prior to the encounter, winning 6-3, 7-6, 7-6 to set off frenzied celebrations and send Israel through to the World Group playoffs for the first time since 1988.

Okun faces Seppi and Sela plays Bolelli in the reverse singles today.

Israel captain Eyal Ran and his players will now have to wait until Wednesday's draw to find out who they will face for a spot in the World Group.

Meanwhile, Germany and Sweden completed 3-0 victory sweeps over Belgium and Argentina to progress to the semifinals of the World Group, while holder Russia was fighting for life against France.

The defending champion was locked in a struggle in Moscow, trailing the visitors 2-1 after Igor Andreev and late substitute Nikolay Davydenko combined to topple Sebastien Grosjean and Michael Llodra 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in yesterday's doubles.

The United States was 2-0 up against Spain. British veteran Greg Rusedski drew the curtain on his tennis career yesterday after helping the nation to a 3-0 Davis Cup win over the Netherlands in Europe/Africa Zone Group 1.

"It was a proud moment, considering this is going to be my last match," Rusedski said in a BBC interview. "I'm officially retiring on a win today. Now I can enjoy life like everybody else. Now it's time to move on."

The 33-year-old from Canada took up British citizenship in 1995 and used his serve and volley skills to win 15 titles, the last three on grass from 2003-2005.