|Wednesday, September 4
Jewish athletes play on with blind faith
By Greg Garber
NEW YORK -- Harel Levy, chest heaving, sweat oozing from his pores, sits on the edge of Court 7 at the National Tennis Center. He stares straight ahead during this changeover, mentally deconstructing first-round opponent Andrei Pavel, oblivious to the teeming, hurly burly crowd just five feet behind him.
It has been 30 years since Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The juxtaposition of that infamous anniversary and the imminent one-year remembrance of the Sept. 11 tragedy inevitably invokes unsettling comparisons.
At the U.S. Open in New York, an international stage of dazzling proportion, some questions beg themselves. Is Levy, Israel's ranking men's tennis player -- a 24-year-old who was born in Kibutz Nahshonin and calls Ramat-Ha-Sharon home -- concerned that he is a target for terrorism in this day of increasingly rational paranoia?
"Not really, no," Levy said last week, not sounding entirely convincing. "I really just try to concentrate on playing the tournament. If I would concentrate on something is going to happen to me, I'm going to live a different life. I don't want to do that."
It was the final question of a difficult, politics-heavy interview and Levy allowed himself a deep sigh when it was over. His answer was a common theme in interviews with athletes of the Jewish faith.
"After a terror attack, you start thinking a little bit," Levy had acknowledged earlier. "But you have to live your life. Otherwise, you will stop living."
American athletes who are Jewish insist that they are further removed from the threat than Israeli athletes.
Jay Fiedler, the quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, said it never would have occurred to him that he might be a target of terrorism until the question came up last week. This, despite the fact that he is well aware of Munich's legacy and keenly sensitive to it.
"I've never thought about it in those terms," he said. "But, no, I don't worry about that kind of scenario."
Stan Kasten, who also is Jewish, is the president of the Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Hawks.
"Religion," he noted, "is a very, very personal thing. Frankly, I don't know anything more personal. I really don't think you can dwell on terrorism. Thankfully, there's no history of [sports terrorism] here. Perhaps it's naïve.
Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green made headlines a year ago when he sat out a loss to the San Francisco Giants in observance of Yom Kippur, the holiest of days on the Jewish calendar. It was the first time in his seven-year career that the holy day coincided with a game he was scheduled to play.
"Some people told me there were articles on Web sites saying it was just a [public relations] ploy," Green said at the time. "The last thing I would want to do is cause a stir. I was just trying to make the right decision.
"I hope I don't have to make the same decision again."
When the issue came up again this year, Green said he expects to be in the lineup on Sept. 15 when the Dodgers meet the Colorado Rockies in a day game at Coors Field. Los Angeles then travels back home for a contest the following evening with the San Francisco Giants.
Green hasn't explained his decision at length in a public forum and he declined to speak with ESPN.com, but Dodgers officials say the fact their game will be played during the day on Yom Kippur helped color Green's decision. (Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Sept. 15 and continues until sundown the following day.) And yet, the question remains: If the game was scheduled to begin after sundown Sept. 15, would it have been pragmatic to risk drawing attention to a religious point of view in this charged, post-Sept. 11 landscape?
A world together
Hadad, a 24-year-old Jew, and Qureshi, a 22-year-old Muslim, had played together on the Challenger circuit for several years and somehow gotten past the petty issue of nationalities and their differing religious beliefs. Indeed, they rather enjoyed each other's company.
They advanced to the Round of 16 at Wimbledon before losing to Martin Damm and Cyril Suk. And that's as far as it went until minutes before the U.S. Open doubles entries closed on Aug. 24. Because Hadad and Qureshi were the highest-ranked doubles team not to gain direct entry -- and, not insignificantly, a partnership that represented a message the United States Tennis Association felt was worth sending -- the USTA accorded them a wild-card slot.
"It's a very bold decision," Qureshi said. "I thought they would just give wild card to Americans, but we are thankful and appreciate the opportunity."
Hadad and Qureshi do not worry that someone with a different message to send might try to make an example of them. Their focus, they say, cannot stray from the court.
"No, no," Hadad said after an afternoon practice session. "Maybe when something happens, we'll be unlucky and [coincidentally] be there. I don't think they're going to do it here. I'm not worried. I enjoy playing here and, hopefully, we'll play well."
Said Qureshi: "There are extremists everywhere, you know? You can't help that. You must try to concentrate and do your job."
The subject of politics never come up between them. The tennis court, they say, is not a political platform. Nor is it a place to debate the doctrine of their religions. The arena of sports deserves its own sanctity of sorts.
"We don't ever talk about it at all," Qureshi said. "We are trying to keep our heads clear for tennis. You can't bring religion or politics into sport. That's the good thing about sports, everybody comes together. If you think about it, it's the only thing that keeps all the countries together."
Qureshi insisted that the Pakistan Sports Board threat had passed.
"Back home, nobody contacted me personally," he said. "I just saw some press releases. It's the first time someone from Pakistan has done so well. I'm No. 1 for them in Davis Cup and they're very happy with the results. Nobody back there really understands tennis, so you can play with whoever you want if the results are good."
Beyond Levy, Noam Okun is the only other Israeli men's tennis player in the U.S. Open singles draw.
Okun, who was born in Haifa, is 24 and has been a professional since 1996. In 2000 he was No. 528 in the AP rankings, but last year he vaulted to No. 114 and he currently stands No. 108. He reached the semifinals of two Challenger events, at Bermuda and Aptos, Calif., but had lost 14 of 21 ATP matches coming into the event at Flushing. He dispatched Russian Igor Kunitcin but had the misfortune of drawing Lleyton Hewitt, the No. 1 seed and defending U.S. Open champion, in the second round.
"It's really hard to be an Israeli," Okun said from behind a fashionable set of frameless glasses. "The life, the atmosphere in Israel is really bad. It's weird when you have to think twice just about going to a restaurant. When I'm out here traveling, most of the places I go are really nice. But you go back to Israel and you always have to care.
"It's hard to change your approach, but you do it."
Okun does not worry about his own safety here in New York. At least, he doesn't let it stop him from going about his business.
"Well," he said, "certainly, it crosses my mind. But, you know, I feel quite comfortable here. There are so many Jewish and Israeli people in New York as fans. I'd say 95 percent of them are cheering for me.
"I don't worry. They make a lot of security here. Hopefully, they make it safe. Hopefully, nothing will happen."
Mike Rosenthal, the starting right tackle for the New York Giants, echoed that point of view.
"You try not to think about it, try to have faith that the world has progressed enough that everything will work out OK," said Rosenthal, who is Jewish.
But didn't the events of 9/11 prove that the world hasn't progressed at all?
"Yeah," Rosenthal said, "but there's a lot of bad in the world, and you can't dwell on it. We need to work through those things and have faith in the good."
Every loss hurts
When approached two weeks ago in New Haven, tennis player Anna Smashnova declined to discuss any apprehensions she might have. "I am an athlete," said the only Israeli in the women's draw here at the U.S. Open. "I am focusing on my tennis."
For Levy, the focus is tennis as well. Still, he can never force the bloodshed entirely from his consciousness.
After hip surgery last November, Levy spent six months at home in Ramat Ha-Sharon, a suburb just outside of Tel Aviv. As his single concession to the dangerous climate, Levy drove his own car when he needed to get around instead of sometimes taking the bus.
"Being at home for six months was pretty strange," Levy said. "It was nice. I mean, it's not as it looks on TV. It's pretty normal. We live our lives. Everything looks pretty quiet right now, but I don't want to open my mouth."
Levy, who served for three years in the Israeli Army, said he has been lucky, so far. He hasn't lost any close friends. Still …
"It doesn't matter if you know the guy or don't know them. I mean, Israel is a small country. For every soldier that we're losing, every person we are losing, it hurts. It's sad to say, but we got used to it. It's very sad to say."
Levy, who was only 1-6 coming into the U.S. Open, won his first-round match against Pavel. Focus, apparently, isn't a problem.
"Try to concentrate on what we have to do, the tennis players or other sports players in Israel, otherwise we [won't] go out the right way.
"Everybody is talking about the past, and I think we have to think about the future. Many things happened in the past to Jewish or to the Israeli people. [I am] trying to look toward the future and hoping for a better future for the Israeli people."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com