Re: Andyoni !!
A very long older article from the Jeruselem Post:
One year ago, the closest Andy Ram got to the action at Wimbledon was what he could see on his TV screen.
Back and knee injuries had kept the 22-year-old tennis player on crutches for three months and off the court all season. As he watched the match with a friend, he asked him, "Do you think I’m going to play tennis again?‘ and joked, ’Do you think you’re going to see me at Wimbledon?"
At the same time, Yoni Erlich, then 25, also thought Wimbledon glory was far from his reach. His disappointing 2002 season extended into early 2003 and nearly convinced him to hang up his racquet.
"I was very close to quitting just before Wimbledon. [I thought] Wimbledon might be the last tournament I’d play,‘ he relates. ’Instead it was the opposite… Everything went great. My career changed 180 degrees. Instead of going down, it went straight up."
As it turned out, the longtime friends stunned the tennis world — and themselves — when they shot out of nowhere to make it to the Wimbledon semifinals this July.
In a tight, well-battled match, the unseeded Israelis bested the No. 2 seeds 7-6 (8), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (7) before falling to eventual winners Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden and Todd Woodbridge of Australia. Ram went on to compete against, and lose to, tennis legend Martina Navratilova in the mixed doubles final.
The finishes were the best-ever by an Israeli doubles pair and among the very best in Israeli Grand Slam history. It also vaulted the players forward in the international doubles rankings to career highs of 44 for Ram and 53 for Erlich.
Their achievement brought welcome attention to Israel, its tennis program, and, of course, the stars themselves.
"Almost everyone [in Israel] was watching the match. Even people who had never watched in their lives were watching on the TV. I think there was a huge impact in Israel,‘ Erlich says. ’Luckily there was nothing going wrong in Israel at that time, and it was a beautiful story to tell. It’s been a long time since some small athletes achieved such a big result."
He continues, "I think people were hungry for something like that."
As were the players, given their recent struggles.
"Wimbledon came big time for me. I needed it," Ram says emphatically.
"During the tournament I think we played our best tennis ever," he says, eyeing Erlich as they sit side-by-side at a coffee shop not far from Ram’s Tel Aviv apartment.
"It was amazing,‘ Erlich concurs. ’We struggled in the beginning of the first match but since then we rolled through all of the tournament… It was something that we kind of dreamed of all our life, to do something like that, especially at Wimbledon."
They volley back and forth in their conversation, playing off each other as if they were on the court. They share broad, athletic builds and a slight Spanish inflection in their speech — Ram came to Israel from Uruguay at the age of five, while Erlich’s family immigrated from Argentina when he was one. But they have marked differences as well: Ram has dark features while Erlich is fair; Ram explodes with energy while Erlich is more collected.
Yet both remain humble about their accomplishment, quick to note their surprise at having done so well at the Grand Slam tourney.
NOT EVERYONE, though, is shocked by their results. Shiri Zlotikman has been aware of Ram’s talent from an early age. She first met the Jerusalem-raised player during tennis competitions they participated in as teenagers and has followed his career for the seven years they’ve been dating.
His current success, she says, "doesn’t seem strange to me."
Slightly more bizarre has been Ram’s newfound celebrity.
"Everybody in the street comes up to him and says that he did a great job. It’s great. In one week, everything’s different," she says.
Their coach of two years, Anthony Harris, also affirms his long-held belief in the pair’s abilities.
He recalls feeling particularly proud the day that Erlich acknowledged he agreed with Harris’s assessment.
In the midst of their Wimbledon run, the coach received an SMS from Erlich that read: "You were right. We can do it."
"I felt from his message that he had real belief,‘ Harris recounts. ’It created a feeling in me that was really exciting, because I know how important that [confidence] is to success."
Oded Yaacov, who coaches the pair in the Davis Cup competition but otherwise observes them from the sidelines, says that success like theirs can boost the confidence of players throughout the country.
When players start to reach their mid-20s without a breakthrough, they often consider quitting, he says. The Wimbledon showing "brought a lot of belief to all the players that if you keep at it day in and day out, your week will come." The impact of their achievement isn’t limited to the tennis community’s players, according to Israel Tennis Association general manager Yoram Baron.
He says the Wimbledon triumph generated interest in tennis and press coverage that have previously been lacking.
"I’m sure that many people heard about their [performance] and watch tennis now. Hopefully more kids will sign up."
At the same time, both Baron and Yaacov point to Israeli tennis successes beyond Ram and Erlich’s. Amos Mansdorf and Shlomo Glickstein were strong enough players to push Israel into the top division of the Davis Cup competition, a feat that hasn’t been repeated.
Harel Levy (187) and Noam Okun (191) are higher-ranked singles players than Ram or Erlich, while Anna Pistolesi, ranked 20 in this past month, has been Israel’s most successful player [see box].
Yaacov reeled off the achievements of Israel’s court stars as Ram and Erlich prepared to compete in the Israel League 2003 finals on September 9.
The dynamic duo ended up losing the match. But on the court they displayed the same smooth coordination that powered them to win four Wimbledon rounds.
Chatting between serves as well as pauses on the bench, they bump fists and back slap even after points they lose.
"One of the main things with doubles is communication, and when you have communication, you win tournaments," explains Ram.
THAT COMMUNICATION comes naturally to the pair, who have capitalized on a friendship established years ago and which still results in them doing "everything" together.
"They’ve played together and trained together since they were kids, which means they know each other and each other’s game," says Harris of the advantage they enjoy over many other doubles teams. He adds that they also complement each other, with Yoni making great returns and Ram providing strong serves.
"We kind of grew up together," says Erlich, explaining that this shared past has given him a good sense of his partner’s strengths and weaknesses.
He won’t comment on Ram’s shortcomings, but he’s forthright about his friend’s good points.
"He’s very positive on the court and he’s very energetic. I’m a little more cool, maybe a little more solid. He puts me a little more on fire when I need it."
Indeed, while they sit together talking, Erlich possesses a certain reserve where Ram breaks into frequent wide grins.
When Ram describes Erlich as a good person, Erlich’s quick to return the compliment, though the older player jokes, "I won’t tell more because then he gets cocky." Their easy interaction has its roots in the friendship which they solidified as teenagers training together at the Wingate Institute, just outside Netanya, while in their teens. They teamed up for tournaments in 2001, enjoying some limited successes, but disbanded last year due to Ram’s injuries.
They only reunited at Wimbledon by accident. Erlich hadn’t expected to make the trip to England but got knocked out of another tournament earlier than expected; Andy, meanwhile, hadn’t been able to find a partner.
"At the last moment we signed [up] together," Erlich says.
Their winning combination garnered victories at two recent tournaments — one in Binghamton, NY and one in Istanbul — following Wimbledon. And they each won the American tournaments they played with different partners this summer.
They also shared the disappointment of getting knocked out of the US Open during the first round with play that Ram acknowledges was less than exemplary.
Erlich admits that handling past poor performances can be difficult for a two-person team, but says they have learned to work through any difficulties.
"I trust him and he trusts me. There are a lot of matches where I didn’t play well but he played well and we still won, and the opposite. That’s the main story. We always need to deal with each other. When one person’s upset the other one needs to pump him up and visa-versa," he says, noting it’s important to leave any issues they might have on the court.
"It’s like marriage. If you have a bad day at work, you don’t put it on your wife."
The relationship is one they hope to strengthen, particularly through an appearance at next summer’s Olympic Games. Making the cut is a long shot — only the top 32 pairs get to compete — but Ram is confident they’ll be able to build on their Wimbledon triumph and reach Athens.
As he puts it, "With the food comes the appetite."