The moment of truth was here. The audience at the Centre Court at Wimbledon, and across thousands of households in Israel was holding its breath, waiting to see if he can withstand the pressure against Novak Djokovic, and win the next game and the entire tournament. The hit of the first serve met the bottom net and was stopped. Audience stress levels continued to rise, but the second serve, the more sophisticated one, was not met and determined – a first and historic Grand Slam win to an Israeli tennis player in a singles tournament.
This scenario has obviously never happened, and the best achievement by an Israeli tennis player in Grand Slam tournaments was only recorded somewhere back in 1992, when Amos Mansdorf advanced to the quarter finals of the Australia Open. And still, some see such a future scenario as a completely realistic option. This is also the first and primary goal of the David Squad, an independence body for the promotion and development of talents in Israeli tennis, which is currently marking its 10th year anniversary, and hoping to start reaping the fruit of investment in the near future.
It all began in 2005, during David Coffer’s visit to Israel. Coffer, a Jewish businessman and an enthusiastic Zionist living in London, is an amateur tennis player. One morning, as he left his hotel room in Tel-Aviv, he asked his personal trainer to play on a clay court for a change. When he found out that Israel only has one clay court, in Herzlia (since then five clay courts have been launched in Ramat HaSharon, D.M.), he immediately decided to summon an elite group of Israeli tennis players for a boot camp on his tennis courts at his holiday home in Marbella, Spain, in order to help them improve.
“After two year when Julia Glushko and others arrived to train with me in Spain, I felt it was like giving candy to children. The professional and mental atmosphere I was anticipating was not created, and some things happened that I really didn’t like”, admits Coffer. “My goal was not to fund someone’s summer holiday, and I decided to leave it. A few months afterwards, Oded Yaakov and Andy Zingman asked me if I would agree to invest money in developing players. I said I want to create such a framework, and we set off”.
David and his son Adam decided to establish the David Squad, an independent, non-profit association, with the goal of nurturing the next generation of Israeli tennis. “When we began the project, everyone in Israeli sports and tennis told us that we’re crazy and that we would never make it on our own”, remembers Adam Coffer. “They told us that we have to operate under a larger organization and suggested that we donate money to construct facilities. We told them that we want to construct players, not courts, and we decided to go for it, knowing that even if we fail, we can always look back knowing we did everything in order to succeed”.
“The first thing we set were the principles of the David Squad”, says David. “We decided that it would be an independent financial system, without any political context. I love children, I love Israel and I also love giving people opportunities, teach them and push them forwards. This is something I have been doing my entire life. Anyone selected to our Squad gets the option of being in tennis paradise”.
The first stage in establishing the project was locating the talented children suitable for it. “Despite the fact that we love playing tennis, we are not professional coaches, and the role of our professional committee is to locate Israel’s best players”, explains Adam. “We are an elite academy, locating those with the highest potential for breaking forwards. Previously, the goal of most Israeli tennis players was to succeed here and win a scholarship for a US college. We’re not interested in this, we focus only on developing players who will compete at the top levels of global tennis, and could win Grand Slam tournaments. People can laugh at us and say what they want, this is our goal and it will happen”.
The second stage in establishing the project was setting clear rules for the ongoing operation. “In order to be in our Squad, you have to be an excellent player, who lives in Israel, regardless of religion, gender and sex”, clarifies Adam. “The player must behave appropriately, continue their studies and represent the country as well as us in a dignified manner anywhere in the world. In addition, the player must come from a supportive family, who accepts the fact that the coaches determine everything related to the professional aspect. We have a direct, continuous and good relationship with the parents. We care about their opinion regarding the child’s happiness, but not about matters related to tennis”.
And David adds: “when a child joins us, the parents sign a letter of intent, which makes us his parents on everything regarding tennis. They are not allowed to interfere professionally, and we don’t give a second chance on this issue. We have screened many children along the way, for silly things the parents have told me. When they try to understand why I decided to stop cooperating, I explain that I have no desire to face them in the future, in case the child becomes a successful professional. Not anyone can become a professional tennis player, and if you want to be one, you have to breathe, eat, and dream of being a champion seven days a week, around the clock”.
A child selected to be part of the David Squad, immediately enjoys a package including a team of coaches headed by Andy Zingman and former successful tennis player Tzipi Oblizer. In addition, the child receives a fitness trainer, psychologist, nutritionist, sports equipment, medical treatments, logistic assistance and funding of flights and stays abroad for participating in tournaments and boot camps. Each child is entitled to continue working with his personal trainer in addition to the activity on the Squad, and once a week, all Squad members in Israel meet for a joint activity, including fitness training, lectures, workshops and such.
“Each player is fitted with a special plan, which is updated every few months according to professional reports and what the child needs”, explains Adam. “Each week there is a meeting of the professional staff. This is a group where everyone cares for everyone else and the atmosphere is familial. The players always hang around together, in Israel as well as during tournaments abroad, and one of them recently told me, that every time he feels a decline during a game, he looks at our logo and it gives him strength, because he feels that he is part of something”.
The Coffers prefer not to state the exact amounts they invest in the project, but it’s obvious that this is big money. “The investment is around hundreds of thousands of Dollars a year, when a million Dollars will be invested in each player by the time he’s twenty years old”, Adam agrees to expose. “Our obligation to the player is funding at a magnitude much greater than anyone has ever dreamed would happen here, certainly much more than the Israeli Tennis Association or any government body”.
The Coffers – Adam (38), married and father of two, and his father David (70), live in London. David has established a vast and successful business empire, consisting mainly of dealing in real-estate, in addition to a brokerage company, holiday resorts, bars and restaurants, co-managed with Adam and his other two sons. The family runs another charity enterprise, Project Lily, operating in London and assisting hundreds of children with suicidal tendencies and problems with drugs and alcohol.
“I come from a mixed family, Irish Catholic from one side and from the other side, a Jewish grandmother from Vilna whose family fought the Tsar and faced pogroms”, the father tells. “We are a family who always loved sports, we all play tennis and we are all Arsenal fans”. The project itself is led by Adam from his home in England. “During the week we have many telephone calls and Skype meetings, dealing with the project’s big picture, which includes many components”, says David. “I think part of the success is due to the fact that we manage to keep our emotions out of it, even though we are very passionate about the project and its people”.
As part of the project, the Squad members also go on boot camps held in Spain and Miami, USA, where the Coffers have houses with tennis courts. “For half the year our tennis players are not in Israel. They reach great places like Mexico, South Africa, North America, Europe, and they have a great life”, tells David. “At the tennis center in the USA the main coach is Aaron Krickstein (one of the best Jewish tennis players of all time, who was ranked sixth in the world at his peak, D.M.) and in Spain we have Manolo Santana to help us, who won four Grand Slam titles during the 1960s and ranked first in the world. We have many good friends around the world who believe in the Squad, and it warms our hearts”.
We meet the Coffers at the Tennis Center in Ra’anana, where the project’s first press conference is held. “We didn’t want to involve the media and we didn’t want publicity, we even wanted to be enigmatic”, explained Adam to the journalists on why it took a whole decade until the official media exposure. “You have been asking about us, and we felt it was unfair not to let you get to know us and tell about ourselves”.
Beyond the desire to give answers, another reason for the timing of the media exposure has to do with a new move which the Squad embarks on these days, in order to raise additional sponsors for the project: “the Squad can continue working forever as it does not, but we want more. That’s why we being a marketing move, in order to join partner sponsors to match our investment, and enable us to reach the next stage of the plan”, explains David. “I aspire to reach a situation where we have tennis players from a very young age up to professionals, who will enjoy our system and high coaching capacities. The goal is that those who succeed, return to the project a few percent of the profits from their world tour, and come coach and teach here”.
The David Squad currently includes six tennis players, two girls and four boys, aged 12 to 18, the most known of them is Yishai Oliel, ranked global fourth for youth players, and who was recently defeated in the finals of the Australia Open for youth. The other players are Alex Gaponenko, Shelly Krolitzky, Maya Tahan, Roy Ginat and Ron Ellouck, all local champions who have already had successes in tournaments abroad as well. “Our problem will be when one day, they will play each other at a late stage in a luxurious tournament, and we won’t know who to support”, jokes Adam.
In addition to developing youth and promoting Israeli tennis, the Coffers view the project as a mission for Israel and the Jewish people. “I love Israel very much, I am comfortable here and I consider myself a great Zionist, acting against antisemitism and I am very upset by things happening against Jews lately around the world”, declares David. “One of the reasons which drove me to the project, was the option of using sports to convey a different message about Israel to hundreds of millions around the world. Does anyone know who the president of Switzerland is or the leader of Serbia? Maybe a few, but everyone knows who Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are. This is what I want to happen to Israel, especially if we have an Arab-Israeli tennis champion, and everyone finds out that a Jew stands behind him and supports him”.
Even Adam, with his unmistakable heavy British accent, feels comfortable in Israel, and arrives here five to six times a year: “everywhere I am, even at home in England, whether I want to believe it or not, somewhere in your head, you feel that some of people’s actions towards you and things said to you, are related to the fact you’re Jewish, even if it’s not true in most cases. In Israel I feel at home, that I am with my people”.
“We Have Created a Family”
The David Squad project is operating at the twilight of local adult tennis. Andy Ram has retired, as has Shahar Pe’er. Forty-year-old Yoni Erlich still travels the world and plays, maybe for his last career season, and Dudi Sela, our senior representative, is already 31 years old. “Israeli tennis must undergo a comprehensive systemic rehabilitation, to stop worrying about issues which are completely unrelated to tennis, such as politics and ego problems”, claims David. “Every few weeks someone attempts to open an academy here, which fails. There are many people in Israeli tennis who receive a lot of money and don’t achieve anything”.
Adam also sounds emotional about the situation: “we don’t receive the support we deserve from bodies related to Israeli tennis and sports in general. We have a good relationship with the Tennis Association, I know they appreciate our activity and are dealing with great difficulties themselves. But our players go out to represent Israel abroad and they deserve to receive budgets referred to tennis. The fact that this doesn’t happen, limits our ability to operate, because at the end of the day, our budget is also limited. During the last Davis Cup tournament, everyone say that after Amir Weintraub was injured, the next to play was Yishai Oliel, who is ten years younger. The reason there was no one else worthy between them, explains even more the importance of the David Squad, because now the future of tennis seems brighter”.
The two have recently met with the Minister of Culture and Sports, Miri Regev. “She loves what we do, and is also an honorary member of the David Squad, but tennis is not the top of her priorities at the moment, and we don’t expect help from her”, explains Adam.
As the project progresses, the Coffers have had to face a series of allegations made against them over the past year, mostly about pressure allegedly applied by them to promote the status of certain players from the Squad in the Association, and incorporating them in Davis and Federation teams. The two firmly deny the accusations, for some of which they have already received an apology due to a threat of lawsuit. “Our activity and success cause jealousy by certain factors in Israeli tennis, without naming names”, claims David. “I am forced to refuse many funding requests, because they are not related to the activity of our Squad, and some people don’t like it. We are an independent body, I don’t owe anybody anything and no one can tell me what to do”.
Adam is also disappointed with this conduct: “the moment you succeed, others will want to take you down, instead of thanking you for what you do. This happens all over the world. Sometimes you bite your tongue and don’t say anything, because it doesn’t really affect you and it’s better to ignore it. In other cases, it’s just hard to understand it. We invest great funds out of the kindness of our hearts, directly out of our pockets. We have no problem in hearing legitimate criticism, but I don’t understand why people have to make up lies”.
Another criticism voiced regarding the project deals with the fact that the coaches leading it, have never led a player to the top of world players, let alone winning a Grand Slam. “This is an interesting comment, and the type of criticism we are happy to receive”, says Adam. “On the other hand, you are not born as a coach who won the Grand Slam. We have good professionals and we have to start somewhere. The project isn’t around for long enough to create a champion among the adult players, but Yshai won the youth pair Grand Slam, reached the finals in singles and other Squad members are at the top of global youth players”.
Before we say our goodbyes, I ask the pair to tell me where they would like to see the project in a decade’s time. “I would be greatly disappointed if we don’t have at least three players among the world’s top twenty tennis players, and at least five to represent us in Grand Slam tournaments regularly”, says David. “The Squad members will also be in Davis and Federation teams. The center in Ra’anana, where we operate from, will win every possible title in Israel. We established a good system here, and I have recently decided to step aside and let Adam and his sister Lisa to lead the project. They are its future”.
Adam has his own dreams. “I want us to have at least one Grand Slam champion”, he says. “A few years ago, I surprised Yshai at his Bar-Mitzvah, which was one week after he won the first Orange Ball at the age of 12. I remember entering the hall, and all Squad children quickly ran to me and we all hugged. It was then I understood what we did, that we created a family, and this is the true essence of the David Squad”.
The Squad’s most known and successful player is currently 17-year-old Yshai Oliel, who has been considered in recent years and the next best thing in Israeli tennis. Oliel, born and raised in Ramla, made history when, at the age of 12, he won the Orange Ball, which is considered the world championship for these ages. At the age of 14 he repeated his achievement, and became one of nine tennis players in history to win the double title. “Yshai joined our Squad as soon as it was established”, remembers Adam. “He was only eight years old then, but even back then it was known that there was a child in Ramla with exceptional talent”.
Oliel himself is aware of the Coffers’ great contribution to his career. “If it wasn’t for David and Adam, I wouldn’t achieve even half of I’ve achieved so far”, he says. “There no pressure by them, that if I don’t win a competition they won’t invest in me. They are always with me and there is positive pressure for me to prove to them that I’m worth their investment”.
In recent years, Oliel has continued to progress. In June 2016, he won the doubles Roland Garros tournament with a Czech partner named Patrick Rikel. “After winning he called me on Skype from the court, with my father, who was with him in France, and I began crying”, remembers Adam. “It was a great moment, which reminded me how everyone initially claimed we have no chance of succeeding”.
In January this year, Yshai reached the finals of the Australian Open for youth, where he was defeated by a Hungarian rival, and when awards were handed he burst in tears before the microphone and couldn’t speak. “I didn’t like the crying after the Australia final and I don’t want these things”, says David. “If you reach the finals competing against a player you can beat, it’s time to do it, not finish second and cry. A victory would have given our sponsors’ project a great push, but I understand and accept that you have to lose in order to win”.
Adam sees things differently: “the tournament in Australia was a great success until the finals, and the goal now is to leverage the failure to learning. If he reaches the final and loses again it won’t be good. Yshai is a great kid, the connection with him is daily and we love him very much”.
In February this year, Oliel became a member of the Israeli Davis team and was selected to go onto the singles game following Amir Weintraub’s injury. This was a difficult experience for the young tennis player, who was defeated in the opening game by Jean Suzet, ranked 40th in the world, and in another game, against Pedro Sosa. “It’s good to have this blow at such a young age”, says Oliel. “I was thrown into deep water and I understood how hard I need to work, in order to reach where I, and everyone else, expect of me”.
The Coffers themselves are unsure that the experience was necessary: “despite what people said, we have never met or spoken with the team captain Eyal Ran, we were unaware that this was going to happen, and if they’d asked us, we would probably have preferred it not to happen. Yshai is where we want him to be professionally, but we aspire to more and we will certainly not stop here. We need to remember that he’s still a young boy, but one with an exceptional talent, and it comes with great responsibility”.