Tennis exhibition a smash fundraiser

Getting ready to play are, from left, Jennifer Ibeto, Gabi Lutsky, Shadi Altori and Ofir Morag, with their coach, Noam Yitzhaki, center.  Photo by George Altshuler

Getting ready to play are, from left, Jennifer Ibeto, Gabi Lutsky, Shadi Altori and Ofir Morag, with their coach, Noam Yitzhaki, center.
Photo by George Altshuler

Like most elite 16-year-old tennis players, Shadi Altori has lofty goals for his career on the court. He hopes to join the professional tour and play in the U.S. Open or compete for a top college program in the United States.

But one of his goals transcends tennis.

Shadi, who is Muslim and lives in the Bedouin city of Rahat, Israel, hopes to one day represent his country in the Olympic Games.

Shadi was one of four young tennis players from the Israel Tennis Center, or ITC, who told his story and showcased picture-perfect groundstrokes as part of an Aug. 23  fundraiser for the ITC at the Woodmont Country Club in Rockville. The ITC aims to promote intercultural understanding and improve the lives of underprivileged children in Israel through tennis.

The four players said the greatest value of tennis lies in what it enables them to achieve off the court.
Shadi spends his mornings in an Arab school in Rahat, the largest Bedouin community in the world. He travels every afternoon to an ITC training facility in the predominantly Jewish city of Beersheba, where he trains with Israelis of a wide range of backgrounds.

“We’re making peace with tennis courts, rackets and balls,” he said. “That’s what peace looks like and we live it every day.”

The teenager, who has played tennis competitively for four years, has used his natural athleticism to earn the No. 9 rank in his age group in Israel.

Another player at the event, 14-year-old Gabi Lutsky, has had his own share of success on the court. Gabi, who suffered significant hearing loss at an early age, recently made it to both the singles and doubles finals of a European tournament for children with hearing impairments.

“It was an amazing experience to meet children [at the tournament] from around Europe who have a similar disability,” he said. “I will remember this experience forever.”

Gabi showed off consistent groundstrokes in the exhibition in front of the crowd of 100 people seated on the tennis club’s grandstand. He said that tennis has helped shape his life off the court.

“Playing tennis has given me so much confidence,” he said. “When I go play tennis, I feel like I’m at home.”
Tennis has also helped build bridges for Jennifer Ibeto, 14, who used powerful groundstrokes to move her opponents around the court during the exhibition. Jennifer’s mother immigrated to Israel from Nigeria, and she and her family live in a poor neighborhood in Tel Aviv. Jennifer now holds the number four ranking in her age group in Israel.

“Whether you’re rich or poor, tennis allows for a high level of joy,” Jennifer said.
Annette Lerner, a longtime benefactor of the ITC, echoed the players’ belief that tennis can change lives when she spoke to the crowd following the tennis exhibition.

“More than anything, tennis provides them with the skills to take them far beyond the tennis court,” said Lerner, whose family owns the Washington Nationals and a real estate company.

The oldest player at the event was Ofir Morag, a 25-year-old student at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, who was a high-level junior tennis player and traveled with the Israeli women’s national team. She lived in an ITC training facility in her teens, and said that being with people of different backgrounds becomes “normal” very quickly.

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