As Israeli tennis standout Nadine Fahoum struck a forehand, the pounded fuzz of a ball left the racquet strings on a perfect trajectory, accelerating and ascending well above the net, revolving dozens of times per second before descending and crashing deep in the court — a puff of clay rising in its wake.
Most people who pick up a racquet will never hit the ball this crisply or powerfully, making the kind of contact that looks so effortless. And yet, Fahoum's skills are not quite up to par to thrive in the elite, cutthroat, potentially lucrative world of women's professional tennis.
Still, despite those dashed hopes, Fahoum is quick to dispel any notions that her competitive tennis career has been anything but a triumph.
The Arab Muslim from Haifa was one of Israel's top juniors and earned an athletic scholarship to Duke University. There, she rose to the rank of 15 in the country for collegiate players and graduated last December with a degree in political science.
"I did play some professional tournaments before going on to college, but I decided to come here to the States and get my degree and do something with it afterwards. And tennis was a vehicle to achieve all that," said Fahoum.
Now, she's working for the organization that got her started in the game, the Israel Tennis Centers. Last week, Fahoum was part of an exhibition at the Green Valley Country Club in Lafayette Hill to raise awareness of ITC, an organization that is primarily focused on transforming the lives of Israeli youth, especially the underprivileged.
"They learn so much playing, competing, winning, losing. We make sure they do their homework, go to classes. It's a lot more than tennis," said Fahoum, relaxing about an hour before the demonstration while four youths from Israel practiced on the club's clay courts.
At Green Valley, the athletes showed off their racquet artistry by demonstrating several drills. The event was free, but local organizers Dan and Rachel Schwartz of Lafayette Hill and the ITC were hopeful that the exuberance of the players would create new donors for the nonprofit, which operates 14 tennis centers throughout Israel.
The organization was founded 36 years ago by a South African and five Americans, including the late Harold Landsberg, a lifelong Philadelphian. The program now serves 21,000 children each week, many of whom come from low-income families and hail from Israel's Russian-speaking, Ethiopian and Arab populations. Bolstering ties between Jewish and Arab youth is one of the stated goals of the group.
The ITC organization has produced its share of professional champions, including Amos Mansdorf, a top 20 player in the 1980s, and Shahar Peer, who last year reached a career high of No. 11 in the world. (Despite appearances in several Grand Slam quarterfinals, Peer may be best known for being refused entry into Dubai to compete in a tournament in 2009.)
Several times a year, ITC picks a small team of Israeli youngsters to travel to the United States, stay with host families and participate in events that seek to boost the organization's profile and fundraising prowess. Typically, the young players travel with a coach and ITC staff for a few weeks, show off their game and share their stories.
The four youngsters who brought their skills to the area last week radiated a love of the game and a desire to give back to the organization that had done so much for them. They spoke of playing in Wimbledon but also of earning college scholarships and hitting the books.
This team consists of Rachel Pashaev, a 10-year-old from Sderot — where rocket attacks from Gaza are a constant threat — who trains at the ITC center in Ashkelon and is among Israel's top players in her age group: Dana Kamyshev, a 15-year-old from Haifa who hopes also to play college tennis in the United States: Oshri Ayalo, a 9-year-old boy from Ashkelon whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia and looked as if he's played the game his whole life but just picked up a racquet a year ago: Henri Doukhan, a 14-year-old originally from France who lives and trains at the ITC in Ramat Gan and dreams of playing professionally.
(Doukhan and Kamyshev were kind enough to spend ten minutes on the court with a certain Jewish Exponent reporter and not damage his self-image too much. Each had little trouble absorbing or chasing down the hardest shot hit in their direction and refrained from unloading completely on the ball and the weekend warrior on the other side of the net.)
What do they love about tennis?
"Hacol" or everything, answered the wide-eyed Ayalo, who recently switched to playing with a Babolot racquet to emulate his idol, the Spanish star Rafael Nadal.
Kamyshev, the child of Russian immigrants to Israel, said that being on a tennis court, "it's the only time I can be with myself. It's really something. I can think. I get away from school, from all the bad things."
A little before the guests started to arrive, Fahoum literally carried a weary, laughing Ayalo off the court. Clearly a role-model to the younger athletes, Fahoum stressed that what she loves most about the game is what it has given her: an education, a chance to travel abroad and an opportunity to serve as an unofficial ambassador for Israel.
"I'm 100 percent Israeli," she said when the discussion briefly turned to the complex relationship between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.
"I was born in Israel, I have an Israeli passport," she continued. "I love Israel and I think it's a great country, and I do believe in a better future for our country and for Arabs and Jews to come together and coexist."