A Convenient Misfortune
by James Buddell
Twelve months ago Andy Ram and Max Mirnyi were both in the right place at the right time. Brought together through misfortune, the duo was quick to establish itself as a top team and is now close to qualifying for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in November.
Andy Ram was inconsolable when his partner of more than seven years, Jonathan Erlich, finally acknowledged his right elbow injury needed medical treatment almost 12 months ago. The Israelis were virtually exclusive and had contested 318 of Ram’s 329 tour-level doubles matches together since their ATP World Tour debut at Queen’s Club in 2001.
Erlich, who had carried the niggling injury through the 2008 summer swing, realised by November that it was time to go under the surgeon’s knife in order to prolong his career. The plan was to re-unite with Ram in March, but his road back to full fitness has been littered with minor setbacks.
For Ram the absence of Erlich, his best man at his wedding to Shiri in September 2006, meant he found himself in unfamiliar territory… looking for a new doubles partner. “It was very difficult to find a new partner and form a new team,” Ram began. “Jonathan is like a brother, a lifelong friend who I have known well before we started playing together.”
Mirnyi had given up playing singles after competing at the Beijing Olympics in August 2008, in order to prolong his doubles career. The 32 year old confirmed, “My family is a big part of my life and my singles game wasn’t getting any better. I felt my commitment to singles was slipping as much as my ranking.”
As a result he had begun the 2008 US Open hoping his partnership with Jamie Murray would finally come to fruition. “We entered the US Open thinking we would continue to play together,” explained Mirnyi. But after a 10th first-round exit in 17 tournaments, the pair found themselves “at No. 14 in the ATP [Doubles Team] Race, without a realistic chance of qualifying for the season-climax in Shanghai, and we parted ways”.
Two of the finest doubles exponents on the ATP World Tour had come on the market. Mirnyi was quick to react to Ram’s plight, saying: “Two weeks later, I contacted Andy knowing Jonathan was struggling with his injury.” The duo won their debut tournament, the Bank Austria TennisTrophy at Vienna in October 2008, and decided to make a firm commitment to try their luck this year.
“Because Max has achieved so much on the doubles court, I initially felt I had to be on the top of my game,” explained Ram. “But we were fortunate to have the respect of the top teams immediately. I was very lucky to start playing with Max. He is so professional and I have learned a tremendous amount.”
Erlich admits that “it was very weird at the beginning” when Ram first partnered Mirnyi, but the prospect of returning for two ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments in March fuelled his recuperation. “I was fit and ready to play at Indian Wells and Miami, but one or two weeks before I suffered a setback.”
But once Mirnyi and Ram had reached the BNP Paribas Open final in Indian Wells and won the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, a tough decision needed to be made.
“Andy made the difficult call to play with me in order to qualify for [the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in] London,” confessed Mirnyi, who missed out on the season-climax in Shanghai last year. “Certainly it was disappointing [not to qualify in 2008], having appeared at the season-ending championships on many occasions and winning the 2006 title with Jonas [Bjorkman]. Hopefully this season, Andy and I will qualify.”
A runner-up finish at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament in August, has given Mirnyi and Ram added impetus in their quest but both acknowledge they still have a lot to learn.
“We are still developing as a team and we are still finding different aspects of our game to work on,” admitted Ram. Mirnyi, who has also partnered Mahesh Bhupathi and Jonas Bjorkman, insists that “playing more and more together has developed our understanding as tennis players and, of course, we have got to know one another better off the court too.
“The one asset we do have is that we get on well. We have been successful and blended together quickly, so that breeds confidence. With Mahesh and Jonas, I was the younger player; I was always expected to perform. But now Andy is younger, he generates energy on the court, to train harder and in matches.
“We also keep things easy and in perspective when we lose. We have a strong belief in our abilities, so are able to recover from losses quicker than some pairs.”
With this attitude it would be a fitting finale to their partnership if they were able to qualify for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. At No. 6 in the 2009 ATP Doubles Team Rankings, they stand a good chance before Ram rekindles his partnership with Erlich.
“Max knows that I will team up with Jonathan again in 2010,” explained 29-year-old Ram, “and I think he openly supports the decision. I would like to finish my career with Jonathan.” Mirnyi confirmed, “I back that decision, but I hope we can team up again in the future."
Ram’s immediate future is to perform well at the US Open and help Israel reach its first Davis Cup final. In September, Israel will witness “one of the nation’s biggest ever sporting events” when it faces Spain in Torre Pacheco Murcia.
“Over the past few years, Harel [Levy], Dudi [Sela], Jonathan and I have become a great team,” he said. “One of the reasons is that we all go out together and have formed strong friendships. We are a family, have good connections as players and always cheer for one another regardless of the tournament.”
You wonder where Ram, who puts the birth of his son Alon [in April 2009] as “the best moment in my life”, would put such an achievement.