In 1976 Amos Mansdorf was a 10-year-old Sabra who didn't know a tennis racket from a prickly pear. Hardly any other native Israeli did, either. Tennis in Israel was played mainly by tourists at beach hotels. That year a group of wealthy American, British and South African tennis nuts built a hard-court facility on an old strawberry patch in Ramat Hasharon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. They figured tennis would be a great sport for kids who lived in a land where the sun always shone, without much to do for recreation. Tennis took root and blossomed. About 85,000 Israeli novices have gone through the seven complexes funded by the private Israel Tennis Centers. The demand is now so great that courts are being built as fast as money can be raised.
Mansdorf was one of the first to enter the Ramat Hasharon program. He had been playing for a couple of months when it came time for the family vacation in Greece. He said, "I think I'll skip it. I would rather stay home with Grandma and play tennis." After his parents got back, he announced at the dinner table: "I'm worried. When I play at Wimbledon, how will I adjust to grass?"
Little Amos developed a dependable backhand to complement a sound all-court game and did get to Wimbledon in 1986, losing to Ivan Lendl in the third round. (This year Henri Leconte beat him in the second round.) He is No. 1 in his country and 23rd in the world, the highest any Israeli has been ranked since Shlomo Glickstein also reached No. 23 in 1982. World Tennis magazine named him 1987's most improved player on the men's tour. Mansdorf's Davis Cup heroics in March made him the idol of the thousands of little boys and girls who pay $3 a month to participate in the nationwide tennis program. He beat sixth-ranked Miloslav Mecir in four sets to key Israel's astounding upset of Czechoslovakia. The Jerusalem Post called the team's victory "the greatest and most surprising win in the country's sporting history." But in July, India eliminated Israel in New Delhi.
All four of Mansdorf's grandparents were Zionists who emigrated from Poland in the 1930s. They worked on a kibbutz, but after an outbreak of malaria they moved to Ramat Hasharon, where the living conditions were better. His parents met in high school. Jacob, a chemical engineer, played tennis at the local country club. "Whenever Amos was missing," he says, "we knew where to find him. He always had his nose to the fence of the courts."
After the Ramat Hasharon center opened, he quickly became its top prospect. "Amos was a little squirrelly when he was young," recalls 1951 Wimbledon champion Dick Savitt, a New York investment banker who oversees the coaching techniques used at all seven centers. Mansdorf used to break rackets, whine about line calls and stomp off the court. In the juniors, he drew a one-month suspension after hurdling a net and shoving an opponent he thought was cheating. "It wasn't a hard push," Mansdorf says, "just a Mediterranean macho one."
"I never worried that Amos would develop into another McEnroe," says Jacob. "I'm referring to McEnroe's temper, not his game." But Mansdorf and McEnroe engaged in some verbal volleying last February in the semifinals of the U.S. Pro Indoor Championships in Philadelphia. Mansdorf took the opening set 7-5. During a changeover in the second, McEnroe cursed him. Mansdorf swore back in Hebrew. "I'm not stupid," he says. "I didn't want to get fined."
McEnroe ranted on—in English—and got slapped with a $1,000 fine. Mansdorf lost the next set 6-2 and the last one 6-3. "Fortunately I didn't lose my temper," Mansdorf says. "If I had, McEnroe would be in the hospital. When somebody hits me, I hit back harder. If he ever does that to me again, I'll smash his face."
Mansdorf is a likable fellow, but he can get a little testy, especially about his size, which is 5'8" and 135 pounds. "If Amos reads in the papers that he's even a centimeter shorter than he actually is, he gets very upset," says Glickstein, Israel's top player from 1976 to 1986. Glickstein, 29, who developed before the tennis centers existed, is basically a self-made player.
Israel's tennis press is more opinionated than knowledgeable. Most beat writers literally had the sport explained to them by the patient Glickstein, who did everything but write his own copy. "The press here is bull——," says Mansdorf, who is sometimes portrayed by Israeli writers as a tennis brat. 'Their understanding level of sports is zero." At one Tel Aviv press conference, he was so incensed by questions about his behavior that he told reporters they had "the I.Q. of baboons." The Jerusalem Post twitted Mansdorf in April for not defending his title at a minor tournament in Jerusalem. "A player owes loyalty to others besides himself," the paper editorialized. Mansdorf, who has a New York coach and a Washington, D.C., agent, shrugs this off as "local patriotism. I'll do anything for my country, as long as it fits into my professional career. I make purely professional decisions."
He uses a similar rationale to defend his decision to play last November at the South African Open, where he won his only Grand Prix title. The Israeli press had accused Mansdorf of abetting apartheid, and urged him to withdraw. "Considering all the trade that goes on between Israel and South Africa, it would be hypocritical for me not to go there," he says. "I would never do anything to promote apartheid. The history of the Jews is one of persecution, so naturally I have great empathy for South African blacks. I've played in Russia, and I don't think human rights violations in South Africa are any worse than there."
Mansdorf claims he played for the 120,000 Jews of South Africa, some of whom contributed to the $25 million that has been raised over the years for the Israel Tennis Centers. Although not religious, Mansdorf feels a certain responsibility to the Jewish community wherever he plays. "I try to show people an Israeli can be a normal guy," he says. "Tennis can improve our relations with the rest of the world."
Tennis tournaments frequently interrupted Mansdorf's compulsory three-year hitch in the Israeli Army, which ended in February. Although he learned how to shoot a machine gun and pulled occasional guard duty, he was never in combat and lived mainly at home, commuting to a desk job. "I was fortunate not to have to do anything of risk," he says. "The Israeli Army gives many promising athletes time off to train. I used to get one-month passes to play tournaments. It wasn't a bad deal."
As a member of the Israeli Army reserves, Mansdorf can be called up in case of war. "But if I'm in the semis at Wimbledon, I don't think they'd call me back," he says. "My being there would be good for national pride."
Mansdorf's sound all-court game has helped make him No. 1 in Israel.