The Australian Open, which begins this year on Jan. 17, is one of the largest sporting events in the Southern Hemisphere, as well as the most-attended Grand Slam tennis tournament, drawing more than 800,000 spectators. But within those enormous crowds, there’s a small but dedicated group of Jewish fans who’ve made a mark by rooting for Jewish players—loudly.
“Generally speaking, tennis is a formal sport, and with tennis fandom, there are all these unwritten rules,” said 25-year-old Elliot Blau, a Jewish Australian tennis fan who has been attending the Australian Open since he was 10. “Tennis is meant to be old-fashioned. The fans just clap and sit quietly.”
A squad of Jewish fans, however, regularly shakes up the the formal tennis etiquette at the Australian Open. Clad in a sea of blue and white, an informal and raucous group of about 50-100 Australian Jews consistently attends the matches of Jewish players at the Open, singing and cheering. Even though their numbers are relatively small, they make their presence known.
The group coalesced around 15 years ago, when Dudi Sela, an Israeli player from Kiryat Shemona, arrived on the international tennis scene, eventually ascending the rankings to reach a career-high singles ranking of World No. 29 in July 2009.
“I don’t think I’ve missed one of Dudi Sela’s games since I was 8 or 9 years of age,” said Matan Slonim, a 23-year-old Australian who has made it a priority to attend each one of Sela’s Australian Open games, and who is one of the informal organizers of the Australian Jewish cheer squad.
Other current top-ranked Jewish tennis players who receive support from the Australian Jewish cheer squad at the Australian Open include Argentine Diego Schwartzman, currently ranked World No. 13, and Canadian Denis Shapovalov, currently ranked World No. 14. Camila Giorgi, an Italian Jewish player, currently ranked World No. 33, also receives support at her matches.
“We definitely cheer on all the Jewish players,” said Blau. “But if we had to prioritize, supportwise, Dudi Sela is always top of the list for sure.”
For longtime tennis fans, this is not surprising.
“There is mythology around Dudi Sela in Australia,” said Blau. “It feels like he is 52 years old right now, but he is only 36 years old, he has been around for so long, he has retired like three times and each time he came back, and he has a fighting spirit.”
Sela’s games attract the largest number of supporters by far, with even his pre-match coin toss subject to intense interest and cheering. “There aren’t that many Israeli athletes on the world stage,” said Slonim, “So it’s really great to support Dudi Sela and just cheer and sing together. Plus, each year he thanks us for coming out.”
Blau thinks that what Sela represents is particularly enticing to his Jewish Australian tennis fans: “Dudi is the underdog, he is always the smallest guy [on the court], he is always fighting back and that is very appealing as a supporter,” he said. “It’s more fun egging on the guy who is not meant to win, because when he does win the payoff is insane!”
Before a match starts, members of the Jewish Aussie cheer squad usually sing “Hatikvah” out loud. Blau dresses with particular emphasis: “I wear these Israeli-flag underwear I bought from the shuk [in Jerusalem] over my shorts, with a white T-shirt and an Israeli flag.”
The group’s loud displays of enthusiasm and exuberance will often attract other, nonpartisan spectators, curious to know what the commotion is about. The official Twitter account of the Australian Open has even created GIFs and posts highlighting the ecstatic cheering of the Australian Jewish cheer squad over the years.
“We used to have a Facebook group to organize all the supporters to come out for Dudi Sela’s matches,” Slonim said. “These days we mainly use WhatsApp to coordinate, but really, anyone who is there on the day is welcome to join us.”
Over the entire 15 years of cheering for Jewish players, there has never been an antisemitic or unpleasant reaction from other spectators. “There is just this great ruach [spirit], supporting an Israeli, feeling like you are part of the Jewish tribe,” said Daniel Jones, another longtime tennis fan who has been to the Australian Open over several years to cheer on Sela.
Why do the Aussies cheer on the Israeli players so hard?
“I think it comes through Melbourne’s Jewish schools, like Mount Scopus or Yavneh that give their students a really strong connection to Israel,” said Jones. (Melbourne has a vibrant Jewish community of about 60,000, in a city of 5 million.) “I think for most people there, it’s more the kinship of going for the Israeli players, than about the sport of tennis.”
While Jewish and Israeli players at the Australian Open certainly appreciate the exuberant Aussie support, the opposition can be a little exasperated by the cheering and applauding.
“I suppose it can be a little off-putting,” Slonim said. “No other group comes out for their players like we do for the Jewish ones, so we are out in force, being very loud and rowdy.”
Blau recalls a particularly poignant moment from 2016: “One of the best moments of Dudi’s career is when he played Verdasco in the third round,” he said, referring to Spanish tennis player Fernando Verdasco. “Verdasco was one of the best players in the world then and he was known for being unbelievable. And Dudi is Dudi. Dudi beat one of the best players in the world, there were so many of us in the same location, in the same seating, we were going crazy the entire game, it gets to the point that it cannot not affect the opposition…I genuinely believe that without us there he wouldn’t have won that game!”
Sela doesn’t have those kinds of victories so often these days. He’s currently ranked World No. 381. But that doesn’t matter much to his fans in Melbourne.
“For us Jewish Aussies, it’s about coming together, when you sit with fellow supporters, it’s not about winning the game so much,” said Jones. “Dudi Sela can lose 6-1, 6-1 and we don’t mind, we’re still there to cheer him on!”
Sela is appreciative of all the love he has received over the years at the Australian Open. “Lots of Australian Jews and Israelis come to every one of my games,” he told me, “and I always play good tennis there.”
Matan Slonim knows that a transition will soon take place for the Jewish Aussie fans that come out each year to the Australian Open. Sela has been playing professionally for over 20 years, and last year he once again announced that he was retiring from professional tennis.
“He told us last year that he wasn’t coming back, but we are thrilled that this year he will be there once again playing,” said Slonim. “Nothing compares to the crowd of supporters that Jewish tennis players get in Melbourne at the Australian Open. It will probably be really different when Dudi Sela retires, but until then I’m going to watch him play tennis.”
Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.