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August 2, 2007

Tennis star puts Israel in grip of Shaharmania

http://www.jewishjournal.com/sports/article/tennis_star_puts_israel_in_grip_of_shaharmania_20070803

Shahar Peer at Wimbledon. Photo by Glenn Campbell/AFP/Getty Images

Shahar Peer at Wimbledon. Photo by Glenn Campbell/AFP/Getty Images

Golda Meir may still hold a prominent place in the hearts of Israelis, but right now the most popular woman in Israel is a 20-year-old who swings a tennis racket for a living.

Her name is Shahar Peer, and while she is only a private in the Israeli army, she is ranked 18 in the world on the pro tour. She is featured almost daily in newspapers, on the radio or on TV and has become a household name. But if Israel is suffering from a touch of Shaharmania, it's not difficult to understand why.

Over the last three years Peer has climbed steadily up the rankings from 183 to 45 to 20. She reached her highest ranking of 15 earlier this year, a standing that only one other Israeli tennis player, Anna Smashnova, has ever reached. Peer solidified her position at the top of women's tennis last year by taking home three singles titles (Pattaya, Prague and Istanbul). But it is her run at the 2007 Australian Open that has some speaking of her as a Grand Slam contender. She was just two points away from eliminating Serena Williams in the quarterfinals before losing in a tight third set. And she is only in the fourth year of her pro career.

The list of impressive tournament results could go on, but what's important here is to grasp just how big a feat it is to make it to 15 in the world. Consider that America, which has a large talent pool and significantly more resources than Israel, did not have a single player in the women's top 20 for the year ending 2006.

The best way to describe Peer's game is tenacious, scrappy, determined. In short, she's a fighter. Some see in her on-court demeanor the embodiment of Israel's national persona -- the tough underdog that always finds a way to beat the odds -- and conclude that Peer plays as she does because she is Israeli. Peer, however, doesn't make that connection.

"There are many Israeli tennis players who don't play like me," she said. "I don't think it is because I'm Israeli or Jewish. That is just how I am. That is just how I play on the court."

Although she makes a good point, the analogy is not likely to go away soon.

On the court, Shahar is a study in self-motivation. There are frequent "come ons," audible slaps to the thigh and spirited fist pumps. But her most distinctive mannerism is a move she does between each point. She turns her back to her opponent and closes her eyes for a few moments as if in meditation. When asked to explain, she says simply, "that's between my psychology and me." No matter the score, her attitude, body language, indeed her presence, state unequivocally, "I am not going away."

Earlier this year, I had the chance to watch her play at the Pacific Life Open, an annual tournament that brings to the Palm Springs area most of the top players in the world. In nearly 100-degree heat, Shahar managed to defeat Anna Chakvetadze, the No. 8 seed, with a demonstration of agility, guts and outstanding defense. A typical point has Shahar sprinting at break-neck speed from one side of the court to the other as if on a metronome, reversing direction so quickly that her sneakers audibly screech across the hot court. The ball flies off her racket with tremendous pace and spin so impossibly close to the top of the net you're certain it's a lucky accident, except for the fact that she does it 10 times in a row.

At each of her matches a cheering section of boisterous Israelis inevitably seems to form, waving Israeli flags and shouting words of encouragement in Hebrew. Some of the most common are: yofi (good), kadima (go on), and achshav (now). And while the entire country seems to ooh and ahh with every point she plays, Shahar takes all the attention in stride.

"After Australia it was crazy in Israel," Shahar said. "They support me a lot and give me good feedback. So, I don't feel the pressure. I feel people want me to succeed."

One Israeli tennis fan, Etti Zuckerman, explained why she thinks Israelis have embraced Shahar with such gusto.

"Yes, we've had other female tennis stars. But Shahar is different," Zuckerman said. "Smashnova was Russian first, and then became Israeli. Shahar was born and raised in Israel. She's an example of what Israel can do."

"Whenever Israel's name comes up in the media it's always about war," the long-time tennis fan added. "I want the world to know that Israel is much more than that. We are a beautiful people and we have much to offer the world. When Shahar plays tennis the whole world sees that. And that ... that is important."

Shahar Peer is playing this week at the Acura Classic at the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad and next week, starting Aug. 6, at the East West Bank Classic at the Home Depot Center in Carson.

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