ISRAELI TENNIS PLAYER DUDI SELA: "HAVING JEWISH FANS PULLING FOR ME REALLY MAKES A DIFFERENCE"

With a recent cold spell having hit south Florida, it was a blustery day when veteran Israeli tennis player Dudi (David) Sela, 30, went up against Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov in first round play on stadium court in first round play at the Delray Beach Open, the first outdoor North American tournament of the season. Facing wind gusts and the 28th ranked and tournament #4 seed Dimitrov meant that Sela, himself ranked in the ATP top 100 at number 92, had his hands full. The smattering of Israelis in the sparse opening day crowd cheered on their countryman with shouts of “Kadima Dudi!” while elsewhere in the stadium, waving an outsized Bulgarian flag, other fans were cheering on the 24 year old Dimitrov, giving the match the feel of Davis Cup play.

After Sela dropped serve in the 7th game of the first set, he managed to hold on at 3-5 by saving set point to keep himself alive in first set play. In the 10th game, down 4-5 and 15-40, Sela held off set point twice and even took the advantage in the game, before losing the game and the set in a long rally.

The second set didn’t go much better for Sela, who dropped serve in the first and fifth games of that set. Down 1-5, Sela held serve to stay alive for another game, then saved set point before falling to the Bulgarian 4-6, 2-6.

After the match, Sela took time to talk with JewishSport.org and the Jewish Journal.

When you fought back three set points in the first set and then again in the second set – is there anything you tell yourself to really stay in the match?

It was 1-0 then 1-1 very quickly. 2-1 then 2 all. His service games – I didn't really have a chance.

At 3-2 I won the first point and then I had an easy back hand and I missed it. Then at 5-4 I said “Let's just try to make the game longer.” Even to slow things down by toweling off after each point... to take time. And to return the ball even if it isn't an aggressive shot – just to keep the ball in play. That was my plan. But then he had an ace and it was set point. But I was just trying to play higher percentage shots. But the game was going so quickly. Still, at 5-4 it is tough to serve for the set, even if you are (Roger) Federer. So I just wanted to stay in the game. I know he is nervous to close out the set so I just wanted to be there.

So does it feel like a match goes more quickly when you are losing?

Listen, a player like Dimitrov, when they are winning they are playing 20 times better. When they are loose they are amazing. But if you can stay with them three or four or five games then they are … everyone gets tight and nervous. The big players – they have a different game; they have big serves and big shots and big returns. But everyone gets tight. So that is why I think: if I can stay with them till the important points then if I can play well in those points I can do something.

In the past you have always raised your ranking when it fell below 50 by playing a lot of challenger events and sometimes you have bypassed some of the big tournaments boost your ranking. Is that the plan this year?

It's not always like I have an option. Always at this time of the year I am playing Memphis, Delray Beach and Acapulco - then Indian Wells and Miami. These are all hard court events. I don't want to play on clay. It takes me three weeks to prepare for clay. In the last 10 years I have played most of the time on hard courts. In Israel we don't even have clay courts. I prefer to play the challengers in this period.

I lost now two times in the first round so I need some points and hopefully next week will go better.

If I will be in the main draw in the clay court season then it is a different story; for sure I will be in Israel and then go somewhere to practice and get ready. But if I am in the qualies (pre-tournament rounds of qualifying play allowing entrants to earn a spot in the main draw – Ed.) in those tournaments I don't want to try to pass the qualies and then win one round for 20 points. (Players rankings are based on their wins, the more rounds they survive in each tournament the more points they earn, with the main tournaments awarding more points at each round than lesser tournaments – Ed.)

You come here to Delray and this year you right away lose in the first round. How disruptive is that – to arrive and before you know it you are already at the airport heading out of town?

I was playing very well in Australia. (Sela made it to 3rd round play in the 2016 Australian Open – Ed.) Last week in Memphis I lost to (eventual tournament semi-finalist Lithuanian Ricardas) Berankis but I was playing well and I felt good. Also yesterday in practice I felt good. But today I didn't play good. Neither of us really – it was tough conditions with the wind. But also it is not easy to go up against Dimitrov. His service games are very quick. If I am not there every point it goes very fast.

 

  

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As you approach your 31st birthday, do you see an end to your career on the horizon? Do you have a number in mind as to how many more years you want to play?

Now that I have two kids at home I need to make some money. Israel is a very expensive place. Right now I don't see myself retiring soon... but after you lose a few tournaments in the first or second round your motivation is down and I start thinking about the family back home and what I am doing... But I'm not at that point. I feel very good – physically very good. In Australia I played really good tennis.

You mentioned the need to support your family and that being a reason to keep playing, but now that you have a family has that changed how you feel about the game. As a young player you were very hungry and did everything to succeed but now that you have a family has that changed?

I think that through all of my career of course the tennis was #1 but at the same time I felt like to be close to family and friends is maybe more important. In a few years nobody will remember me. I look around at a great player like Amos Mansdorf who is now coaching and so I think more important is the kind of person you become.

But does it change your competitiveness?

Of course it does. I changed my schedule. Last year I played 18 tournaments. Some players played 35 tournaments.

It must be gratifying for you everywhere you play around the world to have Jewish fans coming to support you and pulling for you.

It's amazing. It's really nice. Everywhere I go there are Jewish people – they are friendly and nice and want to support me. You know, it gives you something during the match. A lot of guys don't have that. Of course when you are famous you have a fan base. Dimitrov has that in every match. But for other players – such as myself – who are not really famous, it's different. But there are Jews everywhere so for me it is really nice. Even if China in Ning boa you find Jews.

When you are playing in Israel you are playing for yourself. But when you are playing abroad to you feel then as if you represent Israel.

Every single time. It gives me a great sense of pride.

Do you feel that this is your last chance to make the Olympics?

Eight years ago I also made the Olympics when I was ranked 56th but they didn't send me.

But now the rules have been changed and I think the top 80 will qualify and I should be fine. But it's not one of my primary goals. Of course I want to be there, but I am focusing on the ATP tournaments so I am not thinking about the Olympics so much. Maybe when it is closer to the selection time I will think about it more.

If you could go back to 20-year-old Dudi, what advice would you give him based on what you know now?

You know if I would play Dimitrov when I was 20 I would play well because I would not think too much. Now I think too much. So I think that 20-year-old Dudi could give ME advice. Of course now I have a lot of experience but when I was younger if I would have an easy ball I knew I had a winner and now I think maybe I will go for the slice ,,, his backhand is weaker. I don't know if all players are like that but for me it is like that. But of course on the other hand I am more experienced; I know the weakness of the other players much better. But the way I practice – from age 20 till now, I don't regret anything. Maybe I would change the motion of my serve and work more with my shoulder just a little bit to get more power, but I didn't know that the game would change so much when it comes to serving.

Note: For Sela, this was his sixth time playing in the Delray Beach Open in the past seven years. His best result was making it to the semi-final round in 2012. Sela ended 2015 in the top 100 of ATP rankings for the 8th time in the last 9 seasons, inching up from 107th to 100 in the final week of the year thanks to a semi-final run in a challenger event in Italy. Also in 2015, Sela won three Challenger tournaments, his 17th, 18th and 19th titles to date.

Going out in first round play at Delray Beach, Sela was in good company, as last year’s tournament champion Ivo Karlovic of Croatia, also lost in first round play. It would have been Karlovic’s 300th career win. After losing to the 6’11” Karlovic in 2014, the 5’9” Sela grabbed a nearby chair to congratulate the winner in fitting manner (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLbtwz4Aw9Q)    

Friday 19 February 2016