'My name is the wall', said my Israeli opponent, in my first Maccabiah tennis match last week, in the 60-64 age group. As the temperature reached 35 degrees at The Israel Tennis Centre in Ramat Hasharon, Meir pointed out that he did not think the heat agreed with me. He was absolutely right. By then, the game was nearly over and I had managed to claim only one or two points. Meir told me at the end of the match that he played every day and it showed.
Ten thousand athletes from all over the world arrived in Israel last week to compete in the twentieth Maccabiah games. The opening ceremony at the Teddy Kolek stadium in Jerusalem saw those ten thousand athletes marching into the arena, delegation by delegation and cheered on by their supporters in the crowd. Prime Minister Theresa May, in a recorded message, wished the GB contingent well. Prime Minister Netanyhu, in person, welcomed the participants and reminded them that Israel was their home. Despite a Jeremy Kyle style live wedding on the stage, between two Canadians including a real chuppah, apparently to satisfy the Israeli appetite for reality style television, the hairs on the back of the neck stood up when Hatikvah was sung at the end of the ceremony. This will be the only time in my life when I enter a sports stadium from a tunnel to the cheers of an adoring crowd.
My second opponent was an Australian, David, who had brought at 8am to the court his son and daughter-in-law from New York. They wore T shirts which said 'Go dad'. Dad did go and I suffered another heavy loss.
The Israel Tennis Centres (ITC) began its life in Ramat Hasharon forty one years ago. The late Yitchak Rabin's tennis racket is proudly displayed at the entrance to this excellent facility.
It now has fourteen centres throughout the country. It is the lifeblood of Israeli Tennis. We enjoyed a wonderful exhibition match between the veterans, Herel Levy, Andy Ram and Anna Smashova and the young hopefuls aged between 12 and 17.
Herel told me how he was offered a helicopter ride to the tennis court, by the Swedes, in Malmo, to avoid the hostile crowds. Those crowds had turned out to make the Israeli Davis Cup tennis players so uncomfortable. He refused and was taken to the venue in an armoured vehicle. ‘Great for the nerves’, he explained.
A fifteen year old Nigerian girl, whose mum was single, showed her grace and style and hopes to be at Wimbledon very soon. The ITC encourages coexistence between Arab and Israeli tennis players. The head coach told me that he had arranged two tennis scholarships for Palestinian boys in the United States.
The ITC also provides support for disadvantaged children who have the talent to play tennis and we saw the skills at the net of a fourteen year old boy with Down Syndrome, who had a clear passion for his tennis. The ITC goes far beyond training children to become better tennis players; from what I saw, the real focus is assisting them to develop the skills necessary to be productive and self-supporting members of Israeli society.
Through its social impact programmes, a wide range of children are served, including youth at risk, immigrants, and children with special needs, from autism and ADHD, as well as those with developmental and physical disabilities. Tennis has the unique ability to bring together children from different religions in coexistence programs, promoting understanding, cooperation, and friendship on and off the court. It is a pity the Swedes did not comprehend that sentiment in 2009.
My third opponent from Argentina also knew about the heat and the sliced back hand. That game was a little longer. The bonhomie, camaraderie, sportsmanship and goodwill that was established between games was a privilege to experience. I met a 90 year old Romanian who had survived the Holocaust and still played every day. He found himself playing younger men. His son, who was a professional tennis coach, began his career at the ITC and he played junior tennis for Israel.
Lazar from Boston, who was 82 and who celebrated his barmitzvah, in Cuba, played to win. His raquet head was the biggest I have ever seen.
I had the pleasure of meeting representatives from two generations of Israeli tennis-Shlomo Gluckstein and Dudu Sala, who both hit balls at the ITC as young boys. It is remarkable how such a small country with limited resources has produced such world class players.
The mixed doubles event in which I played with Sarah Schechter, was a very competitive event with the Americans taking gold in my age group. Sarah and Diana Gold, encouraged by our able manager and coach Steven Joseph, took bronze and silver in their groups.
And so to the closing ceremony. Ahiya, a former IDF soldier, who was blinded in combat, won two gold medals as part of the Israeli Paralympic rowing team. With his guide dog on the stage, he told the audience ‘I can’t see you, but I can feel our strength as the Jewish people, and when we are together, no one can ever stop us’.
President Reuven Rivlin ended the evening with these words, ‘Israel will be in your hearts and you will be in ours’. This was no schmalzfest. This was raw emotion and it was a sheer privilege to take part. I look forward to 2021 and any 68 year old who fancies their tennis chances!