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Israeli Wasn't Too Old to Dream

September 03, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Tzipora Obziler didn't win her U.S. Open second-round tennis match Thursday, so this story doesn't have a perfect ending.

But for a moment, just after Obziler won the second set against Justine Henin-Hard- enne, the world's top-ranked player and defending Open champion, while the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium court gave Obziler a loud roar as Henin-Hardenne, exhausted, put her head into a towel, Obziler allowed herself a little dream.

"Maybe I could win, huh?" she said. "If I took my chances, maybe?"

Obziler, 31, is a veteran of the Israeli Army. She is ranked 133rd in the world and is nicknamed "Zippy."

She had to win three qualifying matches just to get into the main draw here. She has a pierced eyebrow, no coach, and had quit the professional tour twice -- including for nearly three years after she hurt her shoulder and ran out of money when she was 26.

But she loves the sport and, buoyed by encouraging words from former U.S. Federation Cup coach Billie Jean King after Obziler had played tough against Monica Seles and Lindsay Davenport in 2002, Obziler came back to the tour as an underfunded 29-year-old.

So it was not a shock that she lost to Henin-Hardenne, 6-2, 5-7, 6-2, in a second-round match.

The shock was that Obziler kept Henin-Hardenne on the court for 2 hours 14 minutes, that she baffled the Belgian with off-speed spins and touch shots, and that if her nerves had been a little more hardened and if she could have hit the lines with a few of the shots that just missed, Obziler could have pulled off the most improbable upset in U.S. Open history.

"Beginning of the third set," Obziler said, "you never know. Game here, game there. It was a tough match. Justine is a very good player. That's it. I did my best, I guess."

Then Obziler smiled, broadly, and it was hard not to smile with her.

Tennis is not a passion in Israel, Obziler said. Sports can't be a real passion, she said. Daily life sometimes seems more about survival than having fun. Her mandatory Army service taught Obziler about the world.

"Every day we read the newspaper," she said, "but we don't realize how many things are behind the scenes going on, and I know those kind of things. You find people really work hard for life to get better."

As word of Obziler's performance spread around the U.S. Tennis Center, fans started filling the stadium court to root for the underdog, to cheer for the woman who has never had such a moment.

At the end, Henin-Hardenne, who is still struggling to regain her strength after a four-month viral illness and who looks pale and peaked, had a champion's will and focus. But Obziler was left with a special feeling of her own.

"Being over 31 and still being here, I love it," she said. "This day, it gives me -- how do you say? -- it gives me more appetite for these kinds of matches."

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