homecourt

 Words: Tim Struby

Photography: Anthony Blasko

 

On an Indian summer afternoon, David Mizrahi arrives at Friends Field, a public park off of Avenue L in the Ocean Parkway neighborhood of Brooklyn. A cyan Adidas shirt hangs from his lanky, 135-pound frame. He’s just shy of six feet, but his size 12½ shoe hints at more growth to come. As he steps to the baseline, the 15-year-old is not bothered by the cracks on the light blue surface. Neither the F train growling past nor the nearby raucous soccer game distract him. Wielding his Babolat Aero, David focuses solely on the balls being fed to him by his older brother Haim. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! One after another, the Penn 3s explode down the alley, low and deep. Yet it’s not simply the force or the placement that stand out, but the sound coming off David’s racquet, each pop as sweet and pure as a musical note.

A sophomore in high school, David has been steadily ascending the teen tennis ranks. According to Tennisrecruiting.net, he is now a four-star recruit (out of five) and ranks, in his age group, 12th in New York and 163rd nationally. In his first major teen tournament, the Eastern Super Six B16 in Ithaca, New York, he lost in the quarterfinals to the eventual winner. “Six months ago I could take him,” says Haim, 16 years David’s senior. “Now he’s beating me 6–0, 6–0. He’s getting stronger. Smarter. He’s got his eye on the prize.”

For a shot at that prize—a pro tennis career—David will have to endure thousands of days like today. For hours he pounds backhands, forehands, volleys, overheads, situational shots. He’ll do coordination drills, endurance drills, and strength training. Haim, who designs the workouts, does not let brotherly love interfere with progress. “That shot shouldn’t exist,” says Haim after David sends an uninspired floater over the net. “Back up and pop it.”

In many ways, David Mizrahi is your average teenager. A mouthful of braces, blotchy skin. Sometimes shy, sometimes goofy and playful. In other ways, he’s unique. The Mizrahis are Syrian Jewish. He lives in a Syrian Jewish neighborhood, attends a Syrian Jewish school. When he’s off the tennis court, he’s surrounded 24/7, 365 days a year by SYs, as Syrian Jews are called. To describe his world, his family, his community as tight knit would be like saying Serena Williams is a decent tennis player. “Other than those in uniform like the Hasidim,” says Zev Chafets, an American-Israeli author and columnist. “The SYs are the most insular Jewish community in the United States.” mizrahi_racket

This year, David is at a crossroads. More and more, the secular, individualistic, and independent world of a tennis player is colliding with his religious, communal, and interdependent SY world. Soon the young man will have to make choices. Difficult choices. He knows that faith and fealty to the SYs might potentially jeopardize his tennis career. Yet he’s also convinced that his commitment to God and community might be the very elements that could make him a champion.

After practice, David climbs into his brother’s Range Rover and the two drive toward their parents’ home. The Mizrahis have spent their entire lives in this 75,000-strong SY neighborhood. The streets are lined with one- and two family homes, kosher markets, small shops, and throngs of people busily preparing for Yom Kippur. Most SYs are Sephardic Jews who fled Damascus and Aleppo after World War II. The women get married young and become stay-at-home moms. The men go into the electronics, clothing, and real estate family businesses. What SYs don’t do is dream of being pro athletes.

Yet there was David as an eight-year-old kid, standing in front of the TV, mimicking the players at the US Open. “A lot of the neighborhood kids played basketball,” he recalls. “But I wanted to play tennis because it’s an individual sport. I get the ball a lot more.” His parents, Eddie and Sara, bought him a racquet. At age 10, David played in his first tournament. Poorly. Haim tried to get him in a competitive tennis program but not a single coach saw enough potential. “I took it personally,” says Haim. “So I said, ‘who’s a better person to help him than his brother?’” Having no formal tennis experience, Haim read books and watched videos. By chance he struck up a friendship with former top-10 player Fernando Verdasco, who gave him coaching tips. Haim admits David wasn’t the most talented player. “What he had was an incredible work ethic,” says Haim. If other kids were drilling two hours after school, David would plead to train three. He turned down birthday parties. Didn’t attend dances. He was determined to prove those coaches wrong. Soon enough, his dedication paid dividends. Two years after his first tournament, he earned a qualifying spot for the U12 USTA Eastern Tournament. In a startling upset, he beat two top-10 ranked opponents and hoisted the winner’s trophy.

Since that first win, David has been training year round. On the tournament circuit, he’s steadily climbing in the rankings. Yet while he’s become a familiar face in the northeast tennis scene, he remains an outlier. Although an overwhelming percentage of players are homeschooled, David’s opted to stay at Magen David Yeshivah—a Sephardic high school. He’s kept Haim as his full-time coach because he’s mistrustful of non-SYs. If a tournament falls on a Saturday, they must arrive the night before, stay at a nearby hotel and—in accordance with the Sabbath laws—either walk or bike to the courts. If there’s no hotel nearby? David cannot play.

mizrahi_table

“When I tell other kids that I’m a SY, they’re like, ‘huh?’” says David. He has to explain his Judaism and his strict observance of the Sabbath. Explain why most SY families have five children or more, that weddings can number a thousand guests, that SY summers are spent in Deal, New Jersey. That most SY kids, David included, have never spent a day of their lives without other SYs.

Despite his progress, if he wants a realistic shot at a pro career, radical changes must be made. Soon. First and foremost, Haim must go. The 31-year-old has done wonders— what he lacked in experience he made up for with faith. “Even when my advice isn’t actually the best,” Haim says, “if David believes it is, then it is the best, because tennis is such a mental game.” But that’s no longer enough. David needs a seasoned coach, one who knows how to turn teenage stars into pros. And no matter how close a family, a serious coach isn’t going tolerate “but my brother says I should…” It’s not something David likes to think about. “He has no other choice,” says Haim. “A day is coming when he has to trust someone else.”

The day also looms when David must do the unthinkable: cut the cord. Sharapova and Nadal and the Williams sisters didn’t sit in class from 7:30am to 5pm every day (Magen David requires religious studies in the morning and secular classes in the afternoon). They went to academies like IMG, Evert Tennis, and Saviano. They had tutors and homeschooling. They left their homes and towns and families. But they were not SYs. “Having to leave the community would be more difficult than anything,” says David, his voice softening. “It’s hard to think about it.” He would not be the only casualty. “I’m so worried that I can’t even imagine it,” says his mother Sara. “Especially in this community. It’s not a normal thing.”

The Mizrahis have heard whispers among the neighbors. Is this something David should be doing? Is it wise to leave the Sephardic school? Should he be moving out of the community? The dissenters aren’t so much concerned about athletics—the SYs are not an anti-sports sect like the Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg—but safety. “People are worried about David turning out the wrong way,” says Haim. Unlike basketball, tennis requires solo decision making. The SYs fear temptation. Peer pressure. The allure of girls, drugs, and alcohol. No one in the family or community will step in and divert his path away from a career in tennis, explains Haim, but they will worry.

Ten minutes after leaving Friends Field, the Mizrahi boys turn in to their parents’ driveway. The four-year old house, one of many fresh-out-of-the-box homes in the neighborhood, proves that the family schmatta business is thriving. It is spacious and immaculate.

As Haim and David gorge on pizza at the dining room table, their mother Sara brings out trays of homemade noodles and spinach and a bottle of Sprite. Siblings Claudia (19) and Maurice (12) plop down in chairs. The banter is spirited and light, the laughter genuine and frequent.

mizrahi_family

The talk only becomes serious when the subject touches on a very recent decision: David has accepted an invitation to represent the United States in the 2015 Pan American Maccabi Games, a global competition for Jewish athletes. The December event will be held in Chile, and little bro is going on his own. “I’m going to be nervous for sure,” says Haim. “How much is a plane ticket?” jokes Sara. “At first I didn’t want to go,” admits David, who still doesn’t sound very gung-ho.

It has been deemed for the best. A test run. A baby step toward independence. The next move, inevitably, will be David relocating to a tennis program. While Florida is ground zero for the country’s best academies, the family feels somewhere closer will be an easier adjustment. Philadelphia. Maybe New Jersey. Perhaps he can sneak home for Sabbath. Spend some of the Jewish holidays with his people. “Observing our religion and tennis are clearly a conflict,” says Haim.

Compromise lies ahead, a bending of the rules of orthodox Jewish life. Tournaments and travel will force him to use motorized transportation on Saturdays. He won’t be able to go home for every holiday. He won’t live among the SYs. David is slowly accepting this. “It’s going to happen,” he says, his voice heavy. “But I try not to think about it. I stay in the present.” 

What he will not do, however, is compromise his faith, his belief in God, or the tenets of Judaism. Others might see this as a weakness, or an impediment to Wimbledon dreams, but not David. “It’s really an advantage for me,” he says. His belief in a higher power grounds him, gives him an immutable sense of self. Over the past three years David has met hundreds of other prospects, young men and women who have invested their entire lives in tennis. One day the gamble might pay off. Like most all-or nothing investments, the risk is substantial. If a career in tennis doesn’t pan out for someone whose life is defined solely by tennis, the repercussions can be devastating. Not so for David. He’s safe in the knowledge that whatever happens down the road, he still has his faith and his people. He can always return home. His SYs aren’t going anywhere.