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Unleashed: Gal Hakak, UWs 22-year-old Soldier-Freshman
Release: 01/22/2014
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After three years in the Israel Defense Forces and a childhood spent dodging rocket attacks, the son of an architect and lawyer outside Tel Aviv has shoulders, wit and a sense of place larger than most seniors. Or graduates.

By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

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SEATTLE – Gal Hakak has pride. He has something of an edge.

He also has a background and maturity unlike any in the last decade of Husky athletics.

The freshman tennis player, already among the top three in Washington’s lineup, angrily flung his racquet into his bag Tuesday night. It was immediately after a flurry of service errors had led to the first loss of his dual-match college career, 1-6, 6-3, 3-6 to accomplished Pepperdine senior Francis Alcantara.

“I don’t like to lose,” he said flatly inside the Nordstrom Tennis Center about a half hour after UW (2-1) lost its first dual match this season.

The outburst was a spur-of-the-moment reaction. You see, Gal Hakak has experiences that put losing a tennis match into its proper perspective.

Hakak is a 22-year-old freshman. He has shoulders, wit and a sense of place larger than those of most seniors. Or graduates.

He’s scrambled underground on 10 seconds of notice to dodge incoming rockets. He’s served three years as a soldier in one of the most dangerous, deadly regions in the world.

He has learned counter-terrorism measures, how to apply deadly force. His hands are weapons far more lethal than for their ability to hit blistering first serves or baseline returns.

Hakak didn’t grow up like Huskies senior captain Max Manthou, who was playing on the adjoining court inside the Nordstrom Tennis Center while Hakak finished his match Tuesday. He didn’t grow up like Keith Price. Or like C.J. Wilcox, Jazmine Davis or any other of the approximately 700 Husky student-athletes.

Hakak grew up in Israel. The democracy is also one of the world’s approximately 30 nations that require each teenage male to serve more than 18 months in the military.

In his country all men must serve three years in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF); women are required to serve two years. The IDF is the backbone of Israel’s security against the constant threat of attacks from neighboring Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip and throughout the Middle East, which has been rocked by wars and bloodshed since well before World War I began in 1914.

“Not many of our guys have been holding the weapons that Gal is used to holding,” Huskies tennis coach Matt Anger deadpanned.


FLEEING ROCKETS

When Hakak was at Aviv High School in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra'anana, he and classmates went on a class trip south down the Israeli coast of the Mediterranean Sea. They were close to the Gaza Strip, the 25-mile-by-7½ -mile Palestinian stronghold run by Hamas, which has been named by the United States, Israel and the European Union as an Islamic terrorist organization.

Suddenly, alarms jolted their visit. The town Hakak and his friends were visiting was under a rocket attack, apparently from Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Hakak is a 22-year-old freshman. He has shoulders, wit and a sense of place larger than those of most seniors. Or graduates.

“In many areas of Israel, those things happen. It is unnerving. When it happens, it’s just a terrible feeling,” Hakak said. “When the alarm goes off, you have maybe 10-15 seconds, max. It comes fast.

“Everyone was just running everywhere, running to the basement. Then you are just sitting, very anxious. And you wait for the boom.”

The rocket missed the place in which Hakak was hiding. But the incident was the way of life he lived before he enrolled at UW in September.

I asked him what it was like as a boy growing up certain he would soon be learning how to kill.

“It’s just pride, that’s what you feel,” Hakak said inside a film-study room of the Nordstrom Tennis Center about 30 minutes after Tuesday’s match.

“You know when you are growing up that the day will come when you will finish high school and you will go into the army,” he said. “You see your friends and the guys that are older than you, they come back to the high school for ceremonies and they are in uniform. You figure, ‘Hey, I want to be like them.’

“My father served in the army. My grandfather served."

His sister, Shaked, serves, too. She is 20 and in the Israeli army as a sport instructor for special combat soldiers.

"Every person in Israel serves," Gal says. "And they made it, for me, a safe place to grow up, because we are surrounded by so many countries that want to destroy us.

“So I felt that this is my time. This is my time to contribute and donate my time for my country. This is my commitment, even though I am an athlete.”


“THE BOY’S GROWN UP NOW. HE’S A SOLDIER”

Born in 1991 – the year Iraq fired Scud missiles into his country in a failed attempt at provoking Israel’s escalation of the Gulf War -- Hakak grew up playing soccer and basketball “and every sport,” he said. He also took karate near his family’s home in Ra’anana, a city of about 68,000 15 minutes outside of Tel Aviv home to many high-tech companies; Microsoft’s head office in Israel is in Ra’anana.

Hakak comes from a learned home; his father David is an architect and his mother Galit is an attorney specializing in international business law.

They met while each was in the -- you guessed it -- Israeli army.

I asked their son when the last time was that he saw his parents.

“I see them every day!” Gal declared, with the biggest smile of our half-hour talk.

Turns out Hakak already has a best friend at UW: Skype.

“That was my time to serve. That was my commitment to my country."

When he was eight, a fancy new tennis center opened near his home. His father began taking him there, and Gal says he instantly fell in love with the speed and power of the sport. Within a couple years he began focusing on tennis. Soon he was one of the top teen players in Israel. In 2009, he won the Israeli junior national championship. He repeated in 2010.

Yet as good as he was in tennis, as piqued as his interest was in exploring the wondrous possibility of using his athletic talents to secure a free university education in the United States (as he had seen many Israelis before him do), Hakak first had to become a soldier.

When he turned 18 he took a psychometric test to assess his personality, attitude and values. After that timed test, Hakak received a questionnaire.

“(We) doubt that it is legal to reprint any of the questions of this questionnaire,” the Jewish Agency of Israel writes in its instructions to its military inductees, “however suffice it to say that among other things, it is on this questionnaire that you will be able to inform the army if you've ever heard voices talking to you which nobody else heard, or if you ever felt that you were not in control of actions which your body committed.”

Hakak then underwent a battery of medical tests and had an interview in Hebrew with a representative of the Israel Defense Force.

Far from standard stuff for a Husky student-athlete coming out of high school.

He graduated from Aviv High in July, 2010, two months after he turned 19. He and his high-school buddies then went on one, final fling to Greece before they all went into the military.

“Yeah, I had three weeks. That was the trip before the army. It was summer time in Greece. Pretty nice,” Hakak recalls now, sounding wistful.

Three weeks later after Hakak received his high-school diploma his family massed around the bus he was about to board that took him 30 minutes from his home to Bakum, a military base in Tel Hashomer.

It was a grand sendoff, a proud rite of passage into Israeli manhood.

“When I joined the army, it was just magical. It was a magical moment for the family,” Hakak said.

“My family got really excited. It’s like a celebration. You come. You go to the bus. All the family and everyone are happy. The grandmother is crying, because she’s excited.

“And then the bus goes into the base. You see the family maybe once every two weeks – though you get to talk to them once a day.

“But they got really excited. They got more excited than when I came here. When I came here, they were very happy. But when I joined the army they were like, ‘The boy’s grown up now. He’s a soldier.’

“It’s a big thing. It’s a big thing in Israel.”

Upon the bus arriving at Bakum he got his uniforms, his identification cards and tags, his immunizations and injections.

“And then that’s it; you are a soldier,” he said. “Your freedom is gone. You used to be able to do what you wanted. Now, you have people telling you what to do every minute.”

Hakak says that loss of freedom the biggest adjustment he had to make in the military, but it was not overwhelming.

“For me, it wasn’t such a big deal. I took it in a good way,” he said. “That was my time to serve. That was my commitment to my country.

“That was my turn.”


A PRE-MAJOR IN TIME MANAGEMENT

Each day for three months of basic training he woke at 4 a.m. He might run six miles with his unit then shower, perhaps prepare his uniform and gear for a post-workout inspection – all before he’s eaten breakfast. Then he’d put in a full day of training and classes before getting maybe five hours of sleep and doing it all over again.

“I feel like I am more mature than other classmates. Sometimes I feel like I can manage my time in the right way better,” he says now.

Hakak notices fellow UW freshmen, those that aren’t student-athletes, often waste time or claim to not have enough of it to adequately complete their academic requirements.

“We come here and practice four, five hours a day, and I still manage my time,” he said at the Nordstrom Tennis Center. “It’s not easy, but I think I do that better than the other guys. I know whether I should sleep or go out – or not go out -- when it’s time to go out and when it’s time to rest. I know to eat healthy food.”

He also knows how to shoot an Israeli modification of the U.S. Army’s M-16, 5.56 millimeter automatic rifle. His had a sawed off barrel and other changes to make the Israeli version a lighter and more versatile weapon.

22-year-old UW freshman tennis player Gal Hakak during his three years of mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces. (Photo courtesy of Gal Hakak)

“I was pretty good. I’m sure tennis helped a little bit, with the eye and the coordination,” he said, “but I am not the best sniper in the IDF, that’s for sure.”

In those three months of basic training he traded his tennis racquet for gas masks and for krav maga, the Hebrew term for “contact combat.” Hakak learned that art of hand-to-hand combat with sources in boxing, judo, jiu-jitsu, wrestling and realistic fighting. Krav maga focused Hakak on potential terrorist attacks or abductions in close quarters and urban settings. It taught him brutal measures of counter-attack.

Krav maga methods are intended to be decisive and likely deadly, in the fastest manner possible. They target the body’s most vulnerable places: eyes, neck, voice box, face, solar plexus, groin, ribs, knee, foot, fingers.

The Mossad, Israel’s institute for intelligence and special operations renowned for its ruthlessness, uses krav maga.

In other words if you see Hakak around campus or Seattle, don’t mess with him.

As unique as he is, he is not the first to take this path to the Huskies. He’s not even the first UW tennis player to serve in the Israeli military. Ari Strasberg, UW Class of 2003 was a four-year letterman for Anger over a decade ago. He helped Hakak choose Washington. Strasberg also served three mandatory years with the Israel Defense Force, about a decade before Hakak entered the IDF.

The IDF’s commanders recognized Hakak’s athletic gifts and assigned him duties off of the front lines. He became a military ambassador to the Israeli youth, so to speak.

“In the IDF I was an athlete, so I got special conditions of service that allowed me to keep training,” he said of tennis. “I worked more with kids and teenagers and prepared them for the army. I prepared kids who had difficult lives after school.

“The army also takes on the educational part in our society.”

In 2012, during the second year of his three-year military commitment, Hakak sent unsolicited e-mails to tennis coaches in the United States. Anger was one who answered. UW didn’t have a scholarship available that year, but fortunately for Hakak Anger had one in 2013, when Hakak would be out of the military.

He’d been to the U.S. one time before – for a junior tournament in Cleveland when he was 13 – prior to his arrival this past September for the start of classes. On one of his first days on campus he attended the Huskies’ football rout of Idaho State. He was blown away that 70,000 people would cheer so ferociously for 18-, 19- and 20-year olds.

“They are students!” he said, marveling. “In the United States, the best thing for me is the attitude toward sports. It’s unbelievable. The attitude here for student-athletes is amazing. I feel really fortunate.”

That, coupled with Washington’s reputation for academic excellence that stretches all the way to Israel and Strasberg’s hearty endorsement to become a Husky, made UW Hakak’s choice. Sight unseen.


IN THE LINEUP AFTER THREE YEARS OF NOT PLAYING

As experienced as Hakak is in life, he is not as experienced in losing – as Tuesday’s mini, post-match outburst showed.

After he slammed his racquet into his bag following the loss to Pepperdine’s Alcantara, Hakak banged both his knees with his hands. He then closed his bag by angrily snapping his zipper across.

Afterward I asked his coach if he liked the intensity in Hakak’s reaction to losing, or if that was a concern.

“This is what you play for, for the competition.”

“As long as someone is handling himself properly, sure, I don’t want someone to be comfortable in defeat,” Anger said. “I thought he was OK. I want guys who are in that blue-collar mindset that we are talking about. He is playing to win. That’s what we want them to be.”

Then again, it’s been a while since Hakak had lost. A long while.

In order to keep all four years of college eligibility while he was in the Israeli army, Hakak could not enter competitions. The NCAA could have deemed international matches at his age the equivalent of one season, or more, in college tennis.

So each day at about 4 p.m., after he did his military training or met with teenagers, Hakak went to his local tennis club to practice. And practice. And practice some more.

For three years.

“It was tough not to compete,” he said. “You practice three years, and you can’t compete while you see your teammates go to tournaments.”

He threw his arms toward the ceiling.

Is there another freshman competing during this academic year – anywhere – after having to sit out the last three years of competition?

“I get to play! Finally!” he said.

His smile seemed to ease the pain of his first college defeat.

“This is what you play for, for the competition.”

He hopes to develop well enough under Anger at UW to join the professional tennis tour upon graduation. He has sights set on a degree in economics and thinks beyond a tennis career he may want to return to Israel for a career in business, or perhaps to follow his mom into law.

He’ll be 26, if he graduates on time.

Something tells me will.

“Yeah,” Hakak says with a wry smile, comparing himself to most freshmen -- or most college students I know.

“I know more how to make the right decisions.”


Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000. 

Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.

Click here to visit Bell's Twitter page. 

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