Dudi Sela leaves for the USA. No, not for good, only to get a good serve at his career, which suddenly dropped from the top to a flop. A moment before boarding the plane, Israel's No. 1 tennis player explains why the following year will be crucial for him, and what it has to do with a note he got from the psychologist. And he also talks to the [female] fans in the stands: Don't bother - there's already one Lady Racquet who fills his life.
There are nights when Dudi Sela wakes up and doesn't know where he is. It doesn't have to be a hotel, the name of which he can't remember, in a city where he had been two months ago, and where he'll return three months later. Sometimes it happens when he sleeps in his apartment in Tel Aviv. "I get up to use the bathroom, open the door and walk into the closet," he says with a smile embarrassed enough to make you believe he's telling the truth.
How many nights in a year you don't sleep in your own bed?
"Something like seven months."
And how many of those are in shitty hotels?
"Today I already arrive at good hotels. When you enter the top 100, your life gets drastically better. But there was a time when I used to come to places where you look at the room and don't believe it. All kinds of holes in Russia, where you stand in the shower and have to press the shower-head to every corner of your body in order to feel a little bit of water. In moments like that, you're asking yourself 'What the fuck am I doing here'. There are players that get stuck until they're 30 at the limbo of the #250 rank. A lot of them are very good players, and they just can't make it out of there. In those cases you don't make a lot of money, and if at the end of such a day you arrive to a hotel which you wouldn't suggest to a cockroach, the thoughts start to play tricks with your mind. It can drive you crazy."
Were you close to going crazy?
All in all, I came out of those [ranking] areas pretty quickly, but at the beginning of my way I was close to despair. I was just 19, injured for a long period, didn't have a penny to my name, and no one helped me financially. I was really close to throwing it all away. Today when I think about it, I break out in a cold sweat. How did it even cross my mind to quit the thing I love the most in the world?
And what do you love, besides tennis?
Nothing? You're practically Moshe Sinai.
"Sinai the footballer? Why?"
When he was about your age, they asked him what he likes apart from football. He answered in half a second: 'English football'.
"So ask me again what I love besides tennis."
What do you love besides tennis?
The only times I cried
And indeed, to be Dudi Sela you have to love both tennis and professional tennis. Precisely because he doesn't hang out in Novak Djokovic's neighbourhood, precisely because his career is a very extreme roller-coaster, precisely because there are sometimes weekends like the Davis Cup tie against Canada in the last month, which he finished without a breath of air in his lungs or in his soul. And precisely because he knows that with today's tennis, not a lot needs to happen for him to find himself back in the shower-less hotels. Just two years ago Sela reached the 29th place in the world. Think about it for a second. There was one moment when in the whole world there were only 28 people better at what they did than Dudi Sela. In Israel, they celebrated with him for a day or two, and rushed to demand a top 10 ranking. Sela didn't argue. Quite the contrary. He got in the car, and sped up. Straight into the abyss.
"You get such a momentum," he explains, "that you're sure you're unstoppable. You play week after week, they give you respect everywhere, main stadiums, crowds. Everything looks open to you, and on these levels the money is very big. The body and mind tell you that you're pushing it too far, that you need to stop and rest a little, but you don't hear anything, you're feeling high. Until one day, there comes a kid who fears nothing, fights like crazy and beats you. It gives you a little crack in the confidence, and if you go on and lose twice more, then all the power you accumulated during the year is gone."
And that's what happened to you then.
"Yes, I disintegrated completely. When I ended that year, I was finished, and it continued into the next year. In a few months, from the expectation of making it to the top 10, you go down to being 110. You start analyzing and blaming yourself - if you had only missed this tournament or that, if you'd rested for a week, all of this wouldn't have happened. But inside I know - at that point, I'd do the same again. You can't resist the temptation, it's stronger than you."
Is everything about the money?
"Absolutely not. Do you think Roger Federer needs more money?"
No, but Dudi Sela does.
"That's right, I make my living out of it, but I also want to believe that in the end of the day - Federer and I are playing tennis for the same reasons."
You played against him last month. Center court in the US Open, crowds, television, just like you like it. It wasn't a great fight. You lost in 77 minutes.
"Right, I wasn't playing well."
Were you nervous?
"A little bit, but it's not a big deal anymore. There was a time when I couldn't sleep before those matches, today I don't have a problem with it. Also, Federer is a nice guy, he doesn't play dirty tricks on you."
"Let it go, they don't deserve the honour. There aren't many who act that way on the tour anymore."
"There are sometimes things that happen during warm up and the crowd sees, but doesn't understand. The warm up should be just light hitting for fun, helping each other getting into the groove a bit, nothing more. But there are those that would hit one ball to you, one ball into the corner, one to you, one into the corner, like you're not even there. It's supposed to scare you. Nonsense. In the end, those are the matches that you want to win the most. Precisely in those matches you often find your perfect moment."
What's a 'perfect moment'?
"Sometimes it can be just one shot, after which you understand why someone decided you should be a tennis player. There are moments when you see the ball as big as a basketball. You don't know why this moment comes and why it goes. It's really weird. It's like they gave you a few seconds to touch the sky, in the height of your potential. It happens so rarely, that on one hand - it's very frustrating, but on the other - you're willing to kill yourself to feel it again."
At these moments, do you hear what's happening around you? Do you know the result?
"I hear everything, I even know what's the result on the adjacent court. Those who say they're so focused they can't hear anything are just babbling. I hear all the tsu-tsu-tsu of the crowd. They're not pleased, they don't get why they paid the money. During Davis Cup, for instance, you want to win the most, and you hear people shouting 'Wake up!' What 'wake up', I don't sleep for two weeks because of those matches. It's annoying."
Sela's nerves are still tight about this. In the two weeks after that fight against Canada, for promotion to the World Group, he didn't really sleep. He was expected to win both his matches, to bring two points, but in the first match everything already fell apart. Israel didn't qualify, a lot of it because of him. "I played badly," he admits. "Truth is, I didn't play well for the whole month before that."
Was the pressure too much?
"Not more than usually, but it was the first time that I lost a match I really should have won."
When you enter such a period, when nothing works for you, do you try psychological treatment?
"I'm under treatment now. I've been to psychologists before, and it never helped me. Today I'm working with someone who gets my head in order. I never had superstitions or just some mental routine like many tennis players have, but now I read once in a while a note my psychologist gave me, where I described the biggest dreams I had as a child. Sometimes, there are matches where I'm just not there, I know that I'm not there even before the match. Each match like that kills me for two-three weeks. So this note reminds me that when I was a kid this was my big dream, and now I'm fulfilling it, and I need to be there all the time."
Even at the Davis you weren't there?
"During the Davis I'm always there."
Lucky. You can sometimes not be there when you play hundreds of matches a year. But not being there during Davis Cup, in Israel, you know it's almost unforgivable.
"You're telling me? The only times I cried in my career were after Davis matches. But I learned to live with that pressure. I stay away from talk-backs, I don't read what's written about me. Very few people in the country really understand tennis. Understand what it means playing every week in this sport. I hear so many people who have no clue. How many people in the country know Harel Levi? And that's someone who was 30 in the world. Leave the #30, do you know what it's like being #150 in the world in tennis today? Millions of people dream, try, eat the courts to try and be maybe #100. And here, someone who was #30 doesn't get any of the respect he deserves. Do we have a football player who's 30 in the world? There's no sport culture here, and now - no role models, either. Past players retire and they're not taken to train the juniors, because there's no money for that. How do people want to raise stars here, if nobody invests anything in it?"
Sela will pass the next months in the USA, living close to his brother in Dallas, Texas. He plays most of his tournaments in the land of stripes and stars, and the new base will make it easier for him. "It's better for me in terms of my schedule, and mentally I need some quiet," Sela explains. "It's not that I'm moving there permanently, but people already said to me 'We heard that you're leaving the country'. They like it, because it lets them deal with supposed scandals. It's more interesting than the tennis itself. So what, I start explaining that this is the schedule that I have, that it's more convenient and right for me to be in the US for a few months? It's annoying, but I don't want to deal with it right now. Let them say what they want."
Oh, they're definitely going to say what they want, but Sela's decision to put some distance is justified on every level. The pressure that an international-level Israeli sportsman has to deal with is disproportionate to his colleagues around the world. And Sela knows that he's getting into the most important year in his career, the one after which, or maybe even during which, he'll know whether that moment in the 29th place was something real or just a teasing by the tennis gods. Age 26, in the current reality, is considered almost over the peak. Once, a top tennis player had 6-8 years during which he knew that if he'll keep his fitness and concentration, he could keep his standing in the world ranking. Today that range has diminished considerably. Rafael Nadal is 25, and he might've not passed the peak yet, but he's probably already reached it. Sela, who was ranked 95 when these lines were written, doesn't let this new reality make him despair. "I know I can go back there, be at least in the top 50. I can't explain it, I just know it," he says.
I'm a good boy
Dudi Sela was born in Kiryat Shmona and moved to Tel Aviv at a young age. He's been playing tennis almost since he was born and he always was the one everyone were waiting for, and who took some time to arrive. Until today, he's earned $1.5 million from tennis, he has 12 Challenger titles, and he still dreams about a first Tour-level title.
At his best, Sela is a player who's a pleasure to watch. Energizer with a talent for big shots, which are sometimes lifting-stadiums and are highlights material. But when he's turned off - and his light has been flickering for a while now - he can be frustrating to watch. And it can be much more frustrating being him, knowing your talent is worth more than what your results are expressing. Now, he'll have to make his comeback in the period when the depth of the good players - even if not the best - in pro tennis is almost unprecedented. They're all polished, well programmed machines, looking on him from above. Really from above.
Around Amos Mansdorf, who reached a ranking of #18 in his peak, there was a consensus during the happy 80s that if he had ten more centimeters, maybe even five, he'd surely be a top-ten player. Even today, in retrospective, this consensus still exists. The talent was there, so was the game wisdom, the mental toughness - almost, but a player who's 1.73m tall works so much tougher on every point than tall players, that his body runs out much quicker, and the spirit disappears almost immediately afterwards.
Sela is surely the biggest talent that has been here since Mansdorf, but he, too, is just 1.74m, and the world's top looks like a basketball team compared to him. "In ten years, all the tennis players will be 1.95m or higher, and everyone will be great athletes. Even today, the top 100 has maybe five players below 1.80m. My parents are short, I'm short, but my brother, Ofer, is 1.90m. It drives me crazy. Maybe he's adopted."
And with that disadvantage to begin with, you can find yourself playing in 35 degrees, two sets down, and in front of you stands an ogre with a serve of 230 km/h. Despairing.
"There are situations when you sit between games and you tell yourself 'I'm dying to go home'. And there were matches when I thought that way and won in the end. But I always count upon my physical fitness. Only in the last four years I understood which level of physical commitment you have to achieve. During the off-season I'm working on fitness for four hours a day during two weeks, without touching a racquet. During the season I play four hours of tennis a day, and add to that gym, sprints, I'm ripping myself. It took me time to understand it."
And what do you do when you don't feel like practicing?
"I don't go."
"It doesn't happen too much, I'm a good boy."
Are you a good boy after losses, as well?
"Usually. In Wimbledon this year I lost a match that I should have won. A good draw, lots of money, I had to win, and I lost. I came down to the locker room and I was so angry. I didn't leave a thing in place. I broke the racquets, the cellphone, everything. Other players stand around, see me going crazy, but they don't care. It's something that happened to every one of them."
What do you do when you're not playing tennis?
"There's no such thing. There are barely two weeks a year when I can think about something else."
Don't tell me you never get bored by it. It will sound very implausible.
"Sometimes, when I have to wait hours for a match or I'm in a particularly boring place, I can knock my head against the wall."
And you say you're enjoying it.
"I love it. I love the frustrations, too."
Speaking of love - do you have one?
"I have a girlfriend for many years, on and off. She's studying in Italy now. It's difficult to have this kind of relationship, but she understands me. If I weren't with with her, I suppose it would be very hard to maintain a relationship. The goodbyes, the distances, if there isn't someone who travels with you constantly, when it's her life too, then it's very difficult."
Not even talking about the temptations out there.
"No, I told you I'm a good boy."
Yeah, like it's not nice for your ego knowing that there are women in the crowd who can't keep their eyes off you.
"I swear that I don't think about it."
So it's not important for you to look good when you go on court?
"What am I, Federer? Nadal? They're always perfect, but I don't care if I'm not shaved and my clothes are plain white. Sometimes I see at the locker room girls standing in front of the mirror, applying make up, doing their hair, and I think to myself - 'What for? In five minutes all the make up will be smudged from the sweat'."
How long are you going to play for?
"Until I drop off my feet."
Even if you're ranked 300 and the shower doesn't have any water?
"Yes. Tennis is my life."
Note: The title of the interview, "Amen Sela", is a Hebrew expression of biblical origin that roughly means "Amen forever".
(Thanks to @TennisRomi for the picture)