Amir Weintraub: "I was in a good place and then the injury hit me"
"It all happened simultaneously - the inflammation, the divorce, the fall in the rankings... And at some point life just stopped. It's very weird, I never thought that at the age of 28 I'll be divorced and injured". After eight months that turned his life around, Amir Weintraub is slowly rebuilding himself and aspires to become a "Davis Cup beast" once again.
Amir Weintraub almost never had it the easy way. At the age of 21 he was already done with tennis and was about to leave for UCLA, but eventually stayed in Israel. The tennis coach Shlomo Tzoref took him under his wing and groomed him and when Noam Okun and Harel Levy retired, Weintraub became Israel's No. 2 racquet. He had some inconceivable wins in Davis Cup and positioned himself inside the top-200 on the tour, but then came the twist that tore everything apart.
It happened in April last year, on the clay in Slovenia versus Blaz Kavcic. At the end of the fifth set Weintraub made an intentional slide on the surface and then, during the motion for the next shot, came the signal from the groin. "I'll never forget it", he remembers, "I felt this sort of click and knew something bad happened. I could barely walk but went on to win the match. A day later I couldn't stand on my right leg."
The severe inflammation forced Weintraub to take a break, but he never thought it will last so long and even prevent him from playing the important Davis Cup tie vs. Argentina. "There's nothing harder than sitting on the bench, I was with the team in Miami and even thought of playing with an injection but there was no point in that" he says, "I've never sustained such a severe injury. I was in a very good place in life, ranking-wise, mentally, the Davis Cup team and everything else. The injury came like a shock, at a very critical stage."
Belgian doctor Prof. Marc Martens assumed the recovery process will last three months but eventually Weintraub had to go through two surgeries and more than eight months of absence from the tour. Every day he went through three hours of physiotherapy, another hour of hydrotherapy and countless massages and drills to try and get back in shape. Half the day went into rehabilitating the leg and the rest he spent on reading, watching movies and following young tennis players.
"The weeks go by and it's frustrating. You see everyone playing while you're sidelined with pain. You try to play, the first couple of days everything's fine and then it all comes back. You never know where it ends. Time goes by and you mentally break down." During this period, Weintraub saw his ranking drop and his Davis Cup team relegated to the bottom of the Europe-Africa group I. His sponsors left him and the depression seeped into his personal life as he and his wife, whom he married only two months before the injury, decided to separate. "It all happened simultaneously" he shares, "The injury, the divorce, the fall in the rankings... And at some point life just stopped."
Last month, a year after that match in Slovenia, Weintraub tried to return to the tour. In the Raanana challenger the pain returned. Prof. Martens feared another surgery will be required but after a short rest there was a significant improvement. In the last couple of weeks Weintraub won two Futures events in Ashkelon and passed on the third as a precautionary measure.
"When I strain my body the groin swells, like a ball on the tendons that hinders me from returning to the middle of the court. It's very limiting. I check myself and still do everything very slowly. There's always this fear of "I'm allowed to, I'm forbidden to, I feel good, I feel bad, it hurts now, is it serious and should I stop". It goes on after the matches, you return home with ice and pain, barely walking and the next day you need to recover somehow. The leg won't be the same but I'll have to learn how to deal with the pain and adjust myself during matches so I can be as close to what I used to be as possible. It won't be 100% but I won't cry about it. It is what it is and I'm finally in a place where I might finally be moving forward."
In May 2012 Weintraub reached his all-time high ranking of world no. 161. Now he's ranked 606 but will be using the protected ranking (PR) the ATP issues players who are coming back from injury. He'll be able to apply to nine tournaments of his choice with the PR of 224 in the world, including qualifying rounds of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, which should help him gain momentum and find his place on tour. Thanks to the ITA (Israel Tennis Association) and the ITC (Israel Tennis centers), which are holding eighteen futures events in Israel this year, Weintraub won't have to travel to Nigeria, Ghana or India to gather some precious ranking points - as he used to in the past.
Weintraub is an experienced and well known player in Israel but just like when he was 21, at 28 he finds himself once again at the beginning of a journey towards fulfilling his potential and re-igniting his tennis career. Again, just like before, Tzoref is the one who stood by his side and convinced him not to give up. "When I lost my faith and surrendered, he supported me. Tzoref is the father who brings it all together for me. He's responsible for half of my career if not all of it. The ITA also did all it could for me and I hope to be able to come back and repay this debt."
How do view the integration of Bar Botzer and Idan Leshem in the Davis Cup team?
"When I first joined the team it was very hard for me as well, it's a very tight-knit group with great accomplishments and it's very hard to become a part of it. Botzer and Leshem are talented players who can make it. They need to find themselves, grow, evolve mentally and get into it as fast as possible because we need them badly."
With all due respect to the young guard, the team is anxious for Weintraub's return, again versus Slovenia, in a Davis Cup tie that will be held in Israel in two months. "There's no doubt I want to play but it's not about the tennis but mostly about the leg. I'll do anything to be a part of the team, just like I did before. When I'm on the team things come together for me, it feels like I'm not alone on the court and I wish my entire career felt like that. It brings greater things out of me. A lot of Israelis called me a "Davis Cup beast" and that's a title I really loved. I very much want to play in Israel because that's the big moment, in front of your crowd."
What did you miss the most while being at home?
"It's funny because in the past I would've answered this completely differently. I would've said I miss the flights, the places on the tour and the good life. Today I mostly miss being healthy, peace of mind and the tennis. It's what my life's about, my heart and what I've been doing since I was five years old. My Father's from Mexico and my mother's American, they immigrated to Israel out of pure Zionism and everything in our house was always country first and only then you. This is how we grew up and that's how tennis is for me - I managed to do much greater things for my country than for my personal career. Unlike other players who also succeeded on the tour, Davis Cup is the biggest highlight of my life. It gave me a taste of glory and I think I deserved it."
Do you have the strength to make it all the way back again?
"I won't be able to play tennis forever. As long as I can play and things go my way, that's what I love to do and that's what I'll do. These little moments, of winning a Davis Cup match or making the second round of the Australian Open, are worth it all. Afterwards, if I work in a bank or anywhere else, I don't think I'll have such experiences nor will I be able to help my country in a similar manner."
Weintraub reaches his current phase as a much more mature person. He mainly wants to return to those good old days, when he brought his team victories in Davis Cup and even qualified for the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament. "I went through a very deep inner process" he shares while rain drops fall on his balcony floor in the middle of May. "It's very weird, I’ve never thought that at the age of 28 I'll be divorced and injured. Until the age of 27 I had never been in a hospital before and suddenly I went through three surgeries in one year. It's not simple but the family, Tzoref, the ITA and also my ex-wife all support me."
Alongside the yearning for the racquet, Weintraub is already thinking of the next chapter. "Today the goal isn't only climbing up the rankings but also to have a hobby. Perhaps diamonds or real-estate, but currently I don't have the financial backing for such a thing. I didn't get rich from tennis but I'm not poor either. Until I was 25 I had a negative bank balance and at some stage it turned around. I won't be able to retire after tennis and will have to work for a living but I have my own car and apartment which I earned by myself."
Are you on some sort of deadline to become fit to play?
"Since I was 24 I kept telling myself 'This is my last year' because I wasn't making enough money. Today the deadline isn't age or money, it's all about the leg. If by the end of the year I won't be happy with it, I'll retire. I don't trust my body but I'm learning slowly and every day I test my boundaries. It's really about learning to trust yourself all over again but according to recent tournaments I seem to be on the right track."